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.
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.]
Ingredients were ...
395g bread flour
69g egg yolks
23g olive oil
egg mixed for glazing
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.
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
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:
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.