Bread as Craft

Something about being free from the pressure of school and bar study has made me explode in creative energy. Being more crafty than artsy in my tendencies, such energy funnels itself into more and more complicated baking projects.

Milionaire's shortbread. Approach with caution.

Instead of choosing recipes according to whether I have the ingredients, or whether I can make it in half an hour, I choose based on whether the recipe includes skills for me to learn or tasks to busy my hands. Is there a caramelized ingredient? Will I be kneading anything? Is there something to be tempered??

I suppose a lot of this emerged after I made sixty cupcakes for a four-year-old’s birthday party, becoming intimately familiar with the magic and mystery that is Fondant. Being a big ol’ dummy, I did not properly document said cupcakes once fully assembled in their cowboy-themed glory. Suffice it to say, I became intimately familiar with the stuff, and spent many hours making tiny manes for tiny horses with tiny grins and tiny ears.

To wit:

I bet you don't take great pictures in your kitchen at 1am, either.

After the horses (and sheriff’s badges, and monogrammed red bandanas, and horseshoes) were no longer part of my daily life, my hands felt idle. I needed something for them to create, to force into existence, to bring to life. What sprang to mind? Yeast.

I wanted a yeasty recipe that would give me a real run for my money. A dough that I’d be living with for several hours–overnight, even–bringing it into existence slowly, laboriously, effortfully. There is something so rewarding about putting so much of oneself into a craft, even (or especially) when it’s something you’re accustomed to getting from the store without a second thought.

Being about as goy as goy gets, I’ve never had occasion to make challah, but now that I’ve given myself one, I’d say it’s like making a less-fussy brioche. This recipe is from The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser. (Sidebar: if you don’t own this book, you should probably get it. Every recipe I’ve made so far has worked perfectly, and while I’ve never thought of myself as a food history buff, the recipes from the late 1800s, along with their history, are a complete delight.) This particular recipe calls for clarified butter (or vegetable oil, if that’s something you keep on hand) which requires a bit of craftiness in and of itself to make, but shouldn’t be the reason you don’t make this recipe if you’ve never done it before. I certainly hadn’t, and it only took a few minutes. I used this method as a guide, but only used a spoon to lift off the dairy solids instead of cheesecloth.

Make sure you’re fully stocked with ingredients before starting this recipe–that’s a step I usually forget. This recipe calls for 9 (!) cups of flour, plus more for kneading. Yikes. So, maybe spring for one of those big-girl five pound bags? Also, since I plan to make more bread in the future, I got one of the jars of active yeast, instead of the rows of envelopes. Each packet holds about 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast.  My yeast didn’t foam at first, which made me nervous, so I sprinkled about a teaspoon of granulated sugar in the bowl with the yeast, and it started making little colonies. I did have to google “foamy yeast” to see what that should look like. Mine looked about like this, and did its job well.

Also, the braiding technique does sound complicated, but once you actually do it, it’s simple enough. Hopefully, my photos will help, but I failed to take a picture at the very beginning of the process, which, whoops, sorry about that. It’s time-consuming, since you have to let it rise a few times, but it’s not difficult to execute. Also? It will give you a TREMENDOUS amount of bread, with which you can make french toast, and bread pudding (even savory bread puddings, with mushrooms and gruyère, like my friend Jamie made!), and loads of lovely toast! Not to mention how your house will smell.

Challah recipe, developed by Sarah Schecht, originally published in The New York Times in 1976.

The inroduction of the recipe includes a description of Ms. Schecht’s challah that sold me on this recipe: “Her challah has a texture to rival that of the finest spongecakes. It is airborne, light as a zephyr, delicate as eiderdown.” Isn’t that lovely? Sidenote: it’s light as a zephyr, and about as big. It lopped over the sides of an 11″ x 17″ baking sheet, which is the biggest pan that will fit in my oven. The recipe recommends you leave only one rack in your oven, and put it in the bottom-most rack slot. You’ll need the room.

9 cups sifted, unbleached flour, plus additional flour for kneading

2 (1/4-ounce) packages dry active yeast

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

3/4 cup corn oil or clarified butter, plus more for greasing baking sheet

3/4 cup plus 1/8 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon sesame or poppy seeds.

1. Place 6 cups of the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. In a small bowl, stir the yeast into 1 cup of lukewarm water until dissolved. Add this to the well. Using a fork, stir around the well, gradually incorporating 1/4 of the flour — no more — into the yeast mixture. Set the bowl in a warm place and let stand 45 to 50 minutes.

2. Sprinkle the baking powder, cinnamon and salt over the flour mixture. Add the vanilla, 3 of the eggs, the oil (or butter) and 3/4 cup of the sugar. Add 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water and blend again, first using the fork and then your hands. Add 2 cups of flour, kneading for about 10 minutes. If the mixture is still too sticky, add up to a cup more of flour. The dough is ready when it doesn’t stick to your hands. Shape into a rough ball, cover, let stand 20 minutes and then turn it out onto a lightly floured board.

My dough, before resting for 20 minutes...

... and after the 20 minute rest. Yeast is amazing.

Knead well for about 5 minutes, adding a little flour to the board as needed to prevent sticking. Set the dough in a floured bowl and lightly coat in flour. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.

Here it is again, after the 30 minute rest, filling up most of a large stand mixer bowl.

3. Turn the dough onto a flat surface and knead briefly. Cut off 1/8 of the dough, knead quickly, shape into a ball, flour lightly and let rest briefly. Repeat with remaining 7 pieces. Using your hands, roll each piece into a 12-to-15-inch-long rope. Continue with remaining balls.

This is about as equal in size as I could get them. I just rolled them between my hands, not on a cutting board or my counter. I had to use more force than I expected to when making them into ropes.

4. Align the ropes vertically, side by side. Gather the tops together, one at a time, pinching down to seal. Separate the ropes down the center, 4 to a side. Braid them as follows: bring the outer right rope over toward the center next to the inside rope on the left, so that it is right next to the inside-most left rope. Bring the outer left rope over toward the center next to the inside rope on the right. Repeat this process until the loaf is braided. As the last ropes are brought over, pull and stretch them a bit as needed. When braided, gather the bottom ends of the ropes and pinch them together. Ed: I added a note in here to try and make this sound less confusing (maybe you’re not confused, and congrats on that), but hopefully these photos will help.

This clearly isn't the very beginning, but just before this photo was taken, I brought the outer-most right rope to the inner-most right rope.

This is a bit closer to the end, where I started having to tug a bit, and tuck ends under the loaf. Doesn't look like it's going to work out, does it? It totally did!

5. Generously oil (or butter) the bottom and sides of a large baking sheet. Carefully lift the braided loaf and transfer to the baking sheet. Cover the loaf with a towel and place in a warm spot until the loaf is doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

And, enfin, after the 45 minute rest. Isn't it tremendous? Here's where I overshare: this looks a little too much like a pupating bug to me.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

6. Beat the remaining egg with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of sugar. Brush the loaf with the egg wash and then sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake until puffed and golden, about 1 hour. Makes 1 gigantic loaf.

You'd never believe that's a normally-sized baking sheet under that behemoth, would you?

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3 thoughts on “Bread as Craft

  1. Thomas says:

    You make it sound so easy. For the culinary handicapped, this sounds a lot more complex than fixing an old Camaro, but the product seems positively dreamy. A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

  2. Dawn Medina says:

    Lovely, Candice. I’m going to have to get over my bread fear and conquer this.

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