Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lesson from a scale lifetime warranty gone joyous

When I play solitaire, which I only do on vacation because I get lost in it, I always assume I will lose. When I applied for jobs or went on dates, I went in with the attitude that these were one-time meetings that would not bear fruit. There's a pessimism in my genetic makeup; I am thrilled when life works out otherwise. Beneath the pessimism, though, are superstition and hope; the dark attitude actually provides no protection.

Escali scales proved otherwise. Despite my waiting and losing hope, despite a snarky email, despite thinking all was lost even after I had sent the scale back to Minnesota to be fixed - because a few weeks is like an eternity in the Internet age - Escali shipped a new digital scale, explaining in a business form that the old scale was beyond repair.
People really are nice in Minnesota.

Shrieks heard round the block
I screamed with joy when the box with the new scale arrived and screeched with more happiness the next day when I told a friend at work who has been privy to the whole broken scale saga that the nice people of Minnesota are truly nice and not just in reputation and small talk at the airport.

The scale came to my door in the midst of Passover cleaning, after bread making had ceased. And it is Passover now, a holiday when one enjoys unleavened treats, a vacation from bread, so I have yet to try out the new scale. (I just did a bat mitzvah class talk on the whys and wherefores of the distinguishing bread from matzo. Very intriguing.)

Uplifting moral
Original moral of the story: Keep your receipts because no matter how many emails and how good a person you are, the company will not believe that you came by their product legally and under warranty - even lifetime warranty - protection unless you have the evidence to prove it.

Revised and actual moral of the story: Keep your receipts, but do not lose heart if you fail because you never know if there is an angel in Minnesota or elsewhere to give a hand or a new scale. Indeed, this can be true even if you send the company a snarky email that deserves to be met with a "screw you" response. Maybe all of that cold and snow, the sweaters and long underwear, the tea and hot soup, make for a kindness I was unfamiliar with while growing up in 60s New York City.

Almost posted
The following is the post I almost posted, literally with my finger poised over the "publish" button, but taken back to give just a brief moment of time before I sent this darkness out into the world. How right I was to hesitate. How wrong I was to have written these words.

Three strikes
I called the Escali scale company three times. The first time, they told me Yes!, you are certainly under warranty and fill out our online form. Form filled out, two weeks pass, no response and I called for a second time. The second time, like the chorus of a bad song, they told me Yes!, you are certainly under warranty and fill out our online form - and, get this, check your spam folder because our emails often end up there. Now that's a customer-friendly practice. I waited patiently yet again for my email response; I checked my inbox and my spam folders; I got distracted with work and travel and a few weeks later I called again. After all, people in Minnesota are nice, they go out of their way to help, right? I called a third time and the sweet young lady waited while she sent the email to me with the warranty information, received in my inbox on the spot; now all I had to do was read the warranty and mail my scale back.

Not so fast.

Turns out that when you receive a wonderful digital scale with a lifetime warranty there should be a giant warning that says in giant red letters: Keep your receipt. Do not ever throw it away or this lifetime warranty language will be meaningless, no matter how carefully you keep the box, the packaging, and the little leaflet that came with it and no matter how clean you keep the digital scale that you finally ordered after researching all of the options and no matter how much the lifetime warranty aspect of the deal figured into your selection.

Being in a snarky mood once I realized that the lifetime warranty was like a mathematical formula where you keep getting half way so that you never actually arrive at your destination, I wrote an email that demonstrated I was not born in Minnesota, but in a place where sarcasm and nastiness are somewhat appreciated. This will take years of meditation practice to make up from. [I get some credit for waiting to post this, but not much. Just to demonstrate the extent of my tantrum, the actual email to Escali follows.]
My email to Escali
Dear [Escali staff person name],
I spent a good part of the weekend looking for a proof of purchase for the P115C Escali scale I purchased about a year ago. I dove into the nether reaches of my Amazon and credit card accounts. I can't believe how much information is permanently stored, but alas I found nothing (my husband says I have no finding skills, but that usually refers to losing my glasses). I called King Arthur Flour to see if I actually purchased the scale through its catalogue as I had a purchase on my credit card from them at about the right time, assuming, of course, that I actually remembered when I bought the scale. Definitely after January 2013, but I would have to go through baking notes to get more specific. No, that King Arthur purchase, which I had forgotten, was a late holiday gift for a friend.
All I have is the scale and no proof of purchase other than the fact that since I did not receive it as a gift or steal it, the scale, now broken, is legally mine and unfit either for use or for repair. I have the original packaging, but alas, that is insufficient according to your warranty sheet.
The scale, when it worked, was marvelous, and a few weeks ago, when it broke, I was on the phone with a friend I had not spoken to in almost 25 years. No wonder, mid-dough preparation, I probably leaned on the bowl, which was sitting on the scale, a bit too much. After all, you talk to a high school friend and you act about as mature as you did in high school, which, in my case meant baking triumphs and accidents that will go unmentioned (except for the terrible peach pie made with peanut oil that said friend's mother took to an event, something that was forgiven, but certainly never to be forgotten).
I am tempted to send the scale to your company as it is presently of absolutely no use to me. I would like to send it for repair in accordance with the warranty, with your permission, of course. 
Otherwise, the scale will go into the garbage, I will purchase a scale from another company and I will likely write a snarky blog post on my bread blog about my sad scale warranty story. Really, I would much prefer that Escali live up to the warranty and fix my hitherto wonderful scale.

I await your response.
Thank you, 
Signed me [my name here]
Say it ain't so
Embarrassed to say this, but it was such a good scale that I [was] actually considering buying a second one (comparing it to some others) and this time placing the receipt in a safe place like a safe deposit box or in the box with the scale so that I am sure every time I use it that if something goes wrong, I will be able to ship it to Minnesota to be fixed. And by the way, escali means scale in Esperanto, according to the company website. Esperanto is a language that was somewhat promoted by Yiddish speakers and called a world-wide Yiddish, a culture that would appreciate a snarky email.

Don't you know
No response, not even in my spam folder, until three weeks later, a lovely Minnesota email. Those people are so nice, they melted my native New Yorker heart. This Wednesday, after Passover is over and I put away the holiday pots and pans, counter covers, and all manner of stuff I store in the basement for this one week a year, and take out of the pantry the toaster, the bread box, the bread cutting board and other accoutrements of everyday life, I will, with some trepidation, turn on the new scale. Right after, I will run downstairs to the freezer basement and defrost my sourdough starter, which will take about a week to be made ready to raise a bread. I can't wait to mix a dough with the new scale and smile with the thought that it is a scale that means kindness in any language.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Addicted to my digital scale and other tales

I became crazed the moment I realized the digital scale was not working. It was literally right in the middle of mixing together a sponge for the third try at bread #46. I must have been leaning on it while I was talking on the phone and mixing the sponge at the same time. Early the next morning, I ran out for batteries, but new batteries did nothing. The error message kept appearing. The scale was broken. There was no troubleshooting chapter of the brochure, nor a page on the website with a miraculous fix. There is, however, a lifetime warranty on Escali scales, but the employees are not elves; they don't work weekends or respond to emails after five on Fridays.

I feel like I am in withdrawal.

I actually went back to old recipes for volume measures and for recipes where I translated my volume measurements for weight measurements - then worked backwards. I am hoping for a quick Escali response and an invitation to mail back the scale and have it fixed. My fragile balance of life is thrown out of whack.

Bread #46 in development
I am stuck on bread #46, a sourdough challah that I have already made three times. I want this to work. I feel close, but no cigar.

1. Do not make a dough, a sponge, or any pre-ferment at the same time as doing something else. I forget where I am in the recipe or I neglect to write down a measure or a time. Or something else, definitely something, will go wrong.

2. Do not talk to your best friend from high school, who lives half a world away - that's 12 time zones - in a high school-like chattering, wonderful conversation, and expect the bread not to suffer.

3. A dough is like a baby; it needs attention, especially at first.

4. After nine o'clock at night is as bad as five in the morning in terms of brain operations.

5. The aforementioned phone call was at about 9:30 at night. Two strikes against that bread. Still, the dough came out well. It was the overheated spot in the kitchen that precluded perfection.

6. Perhaps my family is using a challah voodoo doll to jinx this challah series because they already love my regular challah and they do not want to taste or become accustomed to anything else.

7. I apologize for using the word "addicted," because I read a few of the articles about the death of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, may he rest in peace, and there are so many people like him who are unable to overcome their demons, instead drowning themselves in narcotics or alcohol. So sad how many people he saw and interacted with in those final days, all of whom said how sick he looked, and no one reached out or pulled him in to take care of him.

8. Even with that perspective, life feels askew without my digital scale.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bread - Number 45: Beautiful Whole Wheat Challah

Bread - Number 45: Oy, but it's whole wheat and not sourdough. I'll kvell anyway.

What a beautiful challah and I followed instructions. My kneading worked. I loved it, perhaps swayed by the appearance as much as the taste. Isn't it always that way with love? My husband, however, is not feeling it. True, whole wheat masks the egg flavor to an extent, which to him means this is not a challah. I'm with him on that, although more open minded. 

This morning, day three of this challah, My husband announced he is buying a lousy bagel from Au Bon Pan because he does not want one more taste of this bread. The weird whole wheat/egg combination was too much for his stomach and mind to integrate.

Well, I like it and I am so proud that I made a challah with my own hands. This challah is part of a journey of needing to arrive at a place with a sourdough challah and without a bread machine to depend on. It's my slow food rebellion - one step at a time.

Master source for the recipe
I used the Peter Reinhart whole wheat challah recipe from his Whole Grains Bread book, which I have yet to read. I am going to read it now. This is a time-consuming recipe. Every five minutes you are doing something; well, maybe at half hour intervals. This one takes a few hours. It is not a "come home on Friday mid-afternoon to make a challah" recipe even if started the evening before. 

The only criticism I have - and the one instruction I refused to follow - was this would have been one overdone challah had it stayed in the oven for 50 or 55 minutes. I took it out at 35 without even using the thermometer. When it comes to challah, I have some experience (not counting the awful attempts of breads #43 and 44).

Ingredients and instructions
Erev baking day = the night before. Mix the soaker and the biga, separately.

227g whole wheat flour
4g salt
170g water

Mix the soaker ingredients and cover with plastic. Let sit out overnight. My kitchen was on the colder side.

227g whole wheat flour
1g commercial yeast (I know, it was so sad not to use my wonderful starter culture)
28g olive oil
114g water
48g one egg
52g egg yolks

Mix the ingredients, cover with plastic and put the bowl in the fridge. Mine rose well overnight.

The recipe states that the soaker and biga can be left alone for 24 hours, so this bread can be tended to solely in the evenings. Just know that it will be a long evening when the dough has to be mixed in its final form, tended to, and baked. It will help if a household member, neighbor or whoever can remove the biga from the fridge in advance of a rushed arrival to get the challah going.

11 hours later
Early the next morning, a snow day (woo hoo!), I took the biga out of the refrigerator and let it sit for two hours before mixing with the soaker in my favorite dough bowl. This being a snow day, again hooray!, I could work while the biga warmed up in an actually heated kitchen. If this had been a late afternoon activity, I would have been fretting about getting this bread done on time for an evening meal. (Challahs do not need to sit before eating. Not in my house.) Though the directions advised cutting the soaker and the biga each into several small pieces before mixing, this did not work for me.

Using a favorite bowl is like using the pen you prefer (I realize some readers might never use a pen). Somehow having those tools and containers that you like make the whole experience feel right. I actually arranged the bowl usage so that the final dough would be mixed in the right bowl.

57g whole wheat flour
5g salt
7g commercial yeast (at least it isn't a lot)
28g sugar or honey (I used honey)
28g olive oil

For later: poppy or sesame seeds and an egg yolk for getting the dough ready for baking

Mixing and waiting, working, and tending
Mix the biga and soaker together first. Then add the rest of the ingredients. The recommended two-minute mix to get a cohesive mass, of course, took almost 10 minutes. I kneaded for four minutes, which finally integrated the honey completely. Have plenty of flour on hand for turning the somewhat sticky mass into a smooth dough. I probably used about 100 to 120 grams of flour. I am not too proud to admit that I used regular bread flour at this point.

Cover the bowl with plastic and let rest.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

I let the dough sit for 45 minutes and it rose - at least to the eye - the requisite one and a half times. I was glad I worked early when the biga was warming because mid-morning seemed like I was off and on tending to the dough. After the 45 minute rest, the instructions were to cut - with a knife - the dough into the number of strands you will use for braiding the challah. I am still doing a three-strand braid, plus three tiny strands for the roll.

Slightly roll the pieces of dough into short, stubby strands and let sit - covered - for five minutes. During the rest time, get the egg wash ready. Reinhart recommends a wash of egg yolk and a tablespoon of water mixed. Roll the strands into their final shape before braiding. If you think of a rectangle, fold each length-long side in, one side over the other, and then roll the dough either between your hands or on the counter.

I am afraid of anything more than three strands. I am almost ready to conquer this fear. Every time I look at four-to-six strand instructions, my eyes glaze over the same way they do when I read a book that describes a battle or navigation of foreign roads. One or two directional descriptions and I am totally lost. Where was the big hill or the little hill or Picket's fence at Gettysburg? Which army was where? I will need some meditation before I approach anything beyond the comfortable three strands that is so similar to braiding hair that I do not have to think about it.

Braid however many strands you like. Do the first brushing on of the egg wash. Cover with plastic and let sit for 30 minutes. Pray that this challah will be better than the last two. Use the rest of the half hour to work.

Second egg wash and prepare to bake
At the end of the half hour, I notice a good sign: The braids did not mush into each other. Sigh of relief. Place the dough on parchment paper that is on either a baking peel for easy transfer onto a baking stone (that is warming in the oven), or a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush on the second coat of egg wash and sprinkle, or not, whatever type of seeds you prefer.

Let sit for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees right before baking. Place the challah dough, and the roll, if you made one, into the oven. If you are using a baking stone, remove the parchment paper after 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, the challah already looked gorgeous, with beautiful oven rise.

I removed the roll at 30 minutes and I took out the challah at 34 minutes.

Can a whole wheat bread constitute a challah?
This bread is wonderful. I love it. Not all opinions in the household agree. The dog is with me, but he sets a low bar for breads and challah is his favorite. I have to say the whole wheat masks the egg taste sufficiently that it does not really taste like a challah. I think it can still be considered a good bread. I even think it is a good challah for having when the picky challah experts in the family are not at home.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bread - Numbers 43 and 44: How not to make a challah

Bread - Numbers 43 and 44: A recipe is someone else's instruction of what presumably works and something I have a hard time following
I tried this recipe twice, two different ways and two failed attempts at a sourdough challah. Even bread book authors who promote using a natural culture almost universally recommend commercial yeast in a challah dough. I tried making a sponge and an autolyse. I tried hours of rising. The first time, the braids were perfect, but the density was more hockey puck than bread. The second try, it was a good bread, but not a challah as it did not even keep the braids when it baked in the oven.

So, first the hockey puck and then the challah attempt that my husband likened to a dinner roll at a mediocre restaurant. I did not take pictures of the hockey puck. I was too depressed. I will summarize these attempts quickly as these are not meant to be recipes, but rather lessons or perhaps comic interludes.

From outside the Jewish bakery
I like the book Inside the Jewish Bakery and I am drawn to the time and place and bakery smells that it evokes, the mid century of New York City's Jewish neighborhoods and the bakery of my childhood, the bakery near the Met Food and the Lincoln Gardens Cleaners, down the block from Goody's Candy Store, a block and a half from home and less than a block from my elementary school, P.S. 209. (I grew up thinking it was the height of luxury to have a school with a name instead of a number.) This was a 10 minute walk from the best place in Brooklyn for a knish, Mrs. Stahls, the used bookstore that had every book one ever requested, though it was hardly bigger than a walk-in closet, and the ocean, the vast open space with its breezes and connection to faraway places.

I took the recipe for the bakery challah from Inside the Jewish Bakery and I changed it completely. Whatever bakery I was trying to evoke, I got something more Woody Allen making lobster than a professional baker preparing challah for the Sabbath. I can hear the comments in my head of all those teachers who told my mother I was bright, but I didn't listen.

Hockey puck
In separate bowls, I mixed the wet and dry ingredients, the usual for challah of bread flour, water, oil, salt, sugar and eggs. I used sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast. I kneaded for 15 minutes. I let the dough rise for an hour and a half; it barely rose. I kneaded for one minute and let the dough relax for a half hour. The braiding went fine. I did not like using a whole egg for the egg wash, as recommended. [Photo of a dough that barely rose.]

The dough looked pretty, but in the oven it did not rise one bit. It was a dense bread that looked - and felt- like a fake piece of food in a store window. At about 45 minutes, whereas I usually bake for no more than 35, I admitted defeat. One bit was enough. Not even edible. [Photo below shows normal looking strands waiting to be braided. Not very well shaped strands. Will have to take photos of nicer ones in future.]

Ingredients were ...
395g bread flour
45g sugar
7g salt
60g starter
69g egg yolks
23g olive oil
170g water
egg mixed for glazing
sesame seeds

The blame for the demise? Was there one critical mistake? I am going with inadequate kneading, but the rising time might have been way too long, giving a kick in the stomach to a bread that was already almost knocked out. Weird metaphor there.

Fluffy bread, but no challah
For the next round, adamant about making a sourdough challah and convinced that making the bread in three stages would yield better results, I made a sponge and an autolyse. An autolyse would mean less kneading.

140g water
75g starter
160g bread flour

I let the sponge sit overnight in such a cold kitchen that the sponge might as well have sat in the refrigerator. However, with the heat on, by mid-day the sponge was nice and bubbly. The signs were much better this time around, I thought.

247g bread flour
54g water
56g egg yolks
59g one egg

I added extra egg because the moisture seemed lacking. The egg and the flour made for lumps of yellowish dough, which took more than a half hour at the dough stage to completely integrate. I let the autolyse sit with its uneven yellow and white mixture, for 20 minutes.

I added the sponge to the autolyse and:
7g salt
23g olive oil
120g bread flour approximately added during kneading
1 egg yolk for an egg wash (before placing dough in oven) (I neglected this part, but I usually do this for the nice finished look.)

The dough was too sticky and I added small amounts of flour while mixing and then kneading. The mixing concentrated on getting rid of the yellow lumps and creating a cohesive dough. My friend Brad was there to laugh with me and to add the flour. He taught me a different way to knead, which was more digging in and folding over than anything I had seen in the many kneading videos I had watched. Brad folded, dug in his heel, and repeated - many times. I took over and realized the small hands require more time for kneading.

I let the dough rise for three hours. It expanded, but I'm not sure it doubled. When it started to look a bit flat, I knew it was time to act or lose a second challah.

Dividing and braiding
I divided the dough into enough pieces for a challah and a roll, with three braids for each, tiny ones for the roll. I followed the advice to let the balls of dough, one for each braid, sit for 30 minutes. I braided and let sit for another 30. In my opinion, that final proof was a mistake; I should have braided, done the egg wash and put this baby in the oven. By the time it went into the oven, it seemed like the strands were mushing into one another. That's no insult to the book as I did not exactly faithfully follow any recipe in either method or ingredients.

Never let your friend peek in the oven
I hold fast to certain superstitions and one of them is not to peek into the oven unless a bread needs some assistance, such as removal of parchment paper or a cover during baking. My friend follows different rituals. Brad looked and he nagged me right into the kitchen. Oh so sad! In the oven, at 325 degrees, the bread rose. It looked like a fluffy Italian bread. The only evidence of the braiding was a zig zag line down the middle, which eventually opened a bit, almost like a cute artisanal signature that was more Walmart goes natural than authentic challah.

The bread tasted fine, nothing special. It had the texture of a fluffy roll. All we were missing were small plastic serving containers of butter for that Applebee's or Denny's-type experience.  

The energy of my family is pushing me away from making a challah any way other than the way I have always made it. Where I feel I might end up with this journey within a journey of a challah series is another way to make the challah I have always made, except to learn to make it without the bread machine.

But wait ... The next bread, a whole wheat challah, which I just tasted, came out marvelous. That will be bread #45. I can almost smell the ocean from near the old bakery at Coney Island Ave. between Y and Z, just up the block from Goody's. 

Still hoping for a good sourdough challah.

Friday, January 17, 2014

My orginal challah recipe - a family favorite

Before there was bread, there was challah

Before I even thought of making bread, I made this challah - every week in my bread machine. And the story starts with my husband, who ate bread every day. I would go to a local bakery in DC and buy him a boule; then in Brooklyn, when I had our older daughter, I would buy an Italian bread. She would sit up in the backpack and I would give her the end to munch on as we walked home. When she was old enough, Brooklyn being a magical place, the woman behind the counter would give her a cookie everyday.

Almost 20 years ago, my mother, may she rest in peace, who adored my husband, bought him a bread machine for Chanukah, which he used for a couple of months. She also bought my sister one as well and my sister promptly started making challah dough in the bread machine, which she makes to this day. I did not touch the machine.  I had no interest in bread.

[Photo: Just-baked small challahs from one batch of bread machine dough. I always bake a roll for each challah.]

What happens without a good bakery

When we moved back to DC, the bread machine stayed with boxes in the basement. And then, discovering that there is no good Jewish bakery (sacrilege to eat supermarket challah in my own personal list of religious rules), and wanting my children to grow up with fresh, good challah every Friday night, I asked my sister for her recipe. I thought I was being a regular Betty Crocker just to be making my own challah, even though the bread machine was doing 90 percent of the work. I take the dough out of the machine, and to this day I braid, always using a small piece of dough for a braided roll (except for the high holidays, when I make round challahs and challah rolls), and bake the challah in the oven. 

[Photo: Sometimes the end of the challah separates a bit, but the braid stays.]

For years, this was the only bread I made. I was proud of it and I was intimidated by the idea of doing anything further, especially without the trusty bread machine. I added a 100 percent whole wheat bread - bread negative one - and there my repertoire stayed for 10 years or so. The challah was such a favorite that every time I visited my parents I would bring one and when my daughters each went off to college, it was frequently requested as a treat. Many frozen challahs have traveled with them to school. Another couple of close friends have become regulars, which makes me very happy because my parents are gone now and I miss their enjoyment, their fussing over this bread.

Challah is also my dog's favorite. He once ate a whole one right off the counter. 

Challah recipe
Before the challah series starts, it is fitting to pay homage to this bread, which always comes out well. I can make this in my sleep. It is my Friday afternoon ritual to come home from the office, don an apron, and make the challah. Once the machine is turned on, I do a little artwork and prepare for Shabbat in between having to pay attention and tend to the dough. By the time the challah is ready, Shabbat is starting or about to. Every week, this challah comes out perfect.

2/3 to 3/4 cup water
1/4 cup oil (I use olive oil)
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups bread or all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar or honey (reduce water a bit if using honey)
1 tbsp yeast
1 egg yolk (to brush on for a nice finish)
poppy or sesame seeds, optional

Put in the bread machine the wet ingredients - water, oil, eggs. Add salt and bread flour. Add honey now if not using sugar. Make a well or two in the flour. Add the sugar and the yeast.

[Photo: Ingredients for challah in the bread machine pan. Sugar and yeast on top of flour, with liquid on the bottom.] 

Set the bread machine for the dough cycle. When the bread machine has been mixing for five to seven minutes, check the dough. I set my timer for 28 minutes because my bread machine sits for a while before mixing the ingredients. I only check after at least five minutes of active mixing.

Usually the dough is fine, I walk away and continue with my Friday afternoon routine.

[Photo: Dough after five minutes of mixing.]

If the dough is crumbly or dry looking, add water. For dry, maybe a teaspoon. For crumbly, the dough might need a tablespoon or more. Add no more than a tablespoon at a time. Give the machine a minute or two and check again now that the extra water has been mixed into the dough. If the dough, on the other hand, is sticking wetly to the sides, add a little flour, maybe a tablespoon. The latter almost never happens. Check again after a minute or two. Keep the bread machine on. Very rarely, this can take another 10 minutes.

Holiday challah raisin mix
It is traditional for the Jewish New Year and for that first month to make a round challah with raisins. Really,one can make a regular challah with raisins as well. 

Add to dough
1 cup raisins
cinnamon to taste (don't be shy, maybe 1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp)
1 tsp vanilla extract 

Mix the raisins, cinnamon and vanilla extract together. Taste the mix. It should NOT be sweet, but more of a sharp cinnamon taste. The sweetness will come with the integration of this mix into the dough.

Maybe ten minutes after the dough check, add the raisin mix. I make sure that the raisin mix is well incorporated throughout. I have also forgotten and added the mix after the dough is ready and that works as well.  

[Photo: Dough after initial mixing stage of approximately 15 minutes of mixing and kneading.]

Getting the dough ready to bake
A half hour to an hour before the dough cycle is complete, preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. I use a baking stone, which gives a nice bakery-like finish to the bottom of the bread. No steam  or la cloche is necessary.

[Photo: Challah dough at the end of the bread machine dough cycle. Ready to be prepared for baking.]

When the dough is ready, I braid. My braiding has improved because I now roll each strand before braiding and I braid from the middle to the ends of the challah. I flatten slightly the dough for each strand and fold in the long sides to make a fat tube-like shape, sort of making a envelope while not keeping the rectangular shape. Very easy to make a braided roll. I only use three strands, like a hair braid, but I might very well experiment with that as well.

I spread some egg yolk on top and sometimes put sesame seeds on top. Poppy seeds are also a traditional option.

I bake the challah for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the roll at 30. 

[Photo: Braided dough with egg yolk for two rolls and two small challahs on baking stone in oven. This is from one batch of dough.]

Other shaping options
If you a making a challah or challah rolls for the high holidays, here are instructions for making a round challah and a round bunch of rolls.

Round challah
Use a round pie or aluminum pan. Otherwise, beware, you might get a strangely-shaped bread. Line with parchment paper. 

Basically, except for the ends, stretch the dough into one very long rectangle about two feet long and six inches wide, approximately. Taper the ends so that they are about half to two-thirds the width of the middle. 

Wrap the dough as though making a spiral and tuck the end underneath. Make sure the middle of the circle of dough is low. Otherwise, it can pop up high and make a weird shape in the oven.

Brush on egg yolk. Bake at 325 degrees for 32 to 35 minutes.

Round rolls en masse
Something that always goes over well, whether plain or made with the raisin mixture, is a round robin of rolls made together. Use a pie or round aluminum pan. Line with parchment paper. 

Make miniatures of the round challah shape described just above. Make 10-15. Put them side by side in the pie pan until they are totally scrunched together.

Brush on egg yolk. Bake at 325 degrees for 32 to 35 minutes. The rolls will bake all as one, but they will be easy to break off separately. 

[Photo: Close up of the baked small challahs. They have a homemade look.]

That's it, the sum of my challah knowledge. Well, that and the memory of what a good challah dough feels like as I roll the strands or shape into a round holiday challah. Every time I make this bread, I think of all the Friday nights of my childhood making Shabbos around the kitchen table and the peace in my house that descends when I light Shabbat candles and we partake of this special bread. And after we say the prayer over the challah, the motzi, we all grab a bit and the dog gets his share. This is his favorite bread.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bread resolutions for 2014

Crafting some plans as I move on from bread #42

Utmost in the bread part of my brain is a plan, followed by some resolutions and then the equivalent of tiny pieces of paper with little notes scribbled on them - some in the form of random thoughts.

The challah plan is not well received
My daughters are off traveling and at school, both far away, far enough to finally start my long-planned challah series. They are both adamantly opposed to any change in the perfect challah they know and love, the one made every week since they were very small. [Photo: Deli in San Fransisco. They make a great havarti sandwich. Right in the Castro, up the block from the last streetcar stop.]

My husband is unenthusiastic as well. He likes the challah and the French Toast made from it and he doesn't want to eat more of what is essentially a white bread. He's all in favor of more whole grain, crusty breads. To reassure him, I will continue to make the favorites and he can contribute to the challah series by taste testing. There are friends and colleagues I think I can count on for that as well. Food disappears pretty quickly from my office kitchen and it's been a while since I brought in a home baked bread.

I woke up on this cold, grey Sunday morning and searched the indices of all of my bread books for recipes and created a handwritten table in my bread notebook to roughly compare egg to flour ratio and whether there were unusual ingredients or usual ingredients missing. The recipes range from two eggs or three eggs to a couple of eggs and up to four yolks. Some have a lower egg to flour ratio than mine and some it is impossible to tell. These are the recipes that measure egg amount in grams or in fractions. I'm not sure how one can reliably add half of an egg. That's what a digital scale is for.

Right now, there are 11 recipes. Well, there are more, but I intend at this point to try 11. Inside the Jewish Bakery is the source of quite a few. I passed over one egg-less recipe because there is no such thing as an egg-less challah. [Photo: The beautiful oven at Frank Pepe's pizza in New Haven. Worth going out of the way for.]

2014 bread resolutions
  1. Challah series - at least three.
  2. Taking photographs of the making of the doughs and breads.
  3. Not doing anything bread related until at least 6:45 in the morning and never while rushing to get out the door to go to work.
  4. Experimenting with more types of flours.
  5. Going through more bread books and experimenting with recipes.
  6. Maybe a bakery tour.
  7. Not totally bread related - figuring out how to make a really good corn muffin. I bought cornmeal on sale for this purpose. 
  8. Experiment to find a nice hot chocolate recipe.
Let me just say that not everything on this list will happen. This is perhaps a 2014-2015 resolution list. I like taking the bread journey slowly. [Photo: Broadway Deli in England, not anywhere in the City, obviously. That's NYC, by the way.]

My eyes are too big for my time
As for the random thoughts and post-its with bread names and the print outs of recipes I do not want to forget, I will get to them along the way.

Hoping for myself, my family and friends, and anyone who reads 108 breads or who has happened across this particular post, a very healthy and happy 2014. May you have fun, love, happiness and sweet surprises all through the year.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Top 4 from the First 40

Top four breads: Like watching a good movie over and over

On the way to making 108 different types of breads I have discovered a few breads that I am making over and over because they taste wonderful and are easy to fit into a working - I spend the day at the office - schedule. These will be so popular that you will receive requests, perhaps even from family and friends who questioned why you would produce your own bread to begin with.

The following recipes all use sourdough starters, which are not complicated to create, maintain or use. I have an easy sourdough primer and links. Some of these bread recipes were adjusted for earlier recipes that I had made with commercial yeast. The sourdough culture has worked so well that I have not used store-bought yeast in almost a year - except for challahs, but that could be changing soon.

My favorite repeats
- drum roll, please ... 

Rye bread - No surprise because I am from Brooklyn. You can't do better than a good rye. The New York genes in my children have made the recipe for bread #27 a big favorite.

Whole wheat sandwich bread - The secret ingredient in bread #32, a 100 percent whole wheat bread, is coconut oil. Make in a loaf pan. It is easy to slice.

Spelt bread - I am a spelt lover. It's not just me. Everyone adores breads made from the recipe for bread #34. This 100 percent spelt bread is not heavy at all. 

and ... one more drum roll, please ... the new entrant -
White bread - Bread #38 comes out so well every time, is so perfectly matched to a busy schedule, and so amazing with its bubbling sponge and miraculously rising dough that I made it three times in rapid succession. Now I understand why bakers extol the virtues of white flours and white breads. I've already started to make variations on this recipe.

[I have now made a few variations of bread #38 (breads #40 to 42) and whole wheat-dominated variations do well. We did not care so much for the partial spelt variation.]

Celebrating the 40 mark

For Chanukah, my husband gave me a few bread-related gifts. Perhaps the best one is a 108 breads apron. I feel so established and professional wearing it. Already the apron is another talisman for good fortune in baking. The other gifts were an oblong la cloche, which I must figure out how to use, and a book, the Art of Fermentation, which threatens to turn me into a fermentation maniac. A review soon. Even though it is not a bread book per se, it is related. From a read through, the directions are less than thorough. I like a nice detailed instruction on anything that I have not tried before.

I am contemplating homemade sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. Brad and I have been talking about a sauerkraut endeavor for over a year. If I het as far as making tempeh at home, I have gone a bit off of the deep end. Of course, it was not all that long ago I felt similarly about growing and maintaining a sourdough culture.

I doubt I will get past the sauerkraut, however, as I do work for a living. Going beyond sauerkraut would mean going into business to teach people and sell the fermented goodies. Something about the word fermented does not go with goodies, unless you are beer lover, but that's a whole other story.

Well, I will have to figure out when to use this lovely new oblong la cloche. My husband gets the first bread made with it, for sure.