Monday, 13 September 2010

The Idiot Baker (or maybe just a shlimazel)

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It started so innocently.  A naive shiksa baker with a lotta chutzpah, a missed slice of challah at a friend's recent wedding, a craving, a dream...

But then it that dream turned to drek.

First came a strange, knead-less recipe that, while it seemed to work well for Rebecca, and while it made a pretty braid on the cold cookie sheet:

nonetheless led to a dense, bloblike 'loaf.'  Not exactly a mitzvah.  Although we did eat it all.

Next, I decided to really roll up my sleeves and get to work.  So I went back to a long-ago bookmarked recipe for a gorgeous challah from Deb.  I figured it would be complicated, but I told myself it was worth the extra effort to get it right.  I didn't have to be such a schlemiel, I just needed to focus.

I made another dough, this one kneaded.  So far, so good.

And I even set up a little rolling/braiding station in the only part of the flat that gets decent light on these crappy London days: the floor by my bed.

And I even made a cheater's fancy challah with 2 braids stacked on top of one another!  It was beautiful, and I was starting to feel like a maven.

Until it melted into a shapeless blob in the oven:

And I found out I'd seriously underbaked it (look closely at that delicious-looking crack– that's dough in there), and slapped myself for being such a schmuck.  Of course I should have left it in!  Challah's supposed to be golden, not tan!  Oy vey.  Back into the oven it went, for another 20 minutes!

Ah, that's better!

Now this is how challah should look!

We could hardly wait to cut into it and get a gorgeous slice of fluffy, delicious, eggy... it was still totally undercooked.

And then I totally plotzed.*  A total of 7+ hours spent kneading and proofing and rolling and braiding, and what'd I have to show for it?  BUPKES.

Sigh.  I need to go bake something easy.  That's really more my schtick.

*Honestly, I had an actual freak-out about how baking is the only thing I'm successful at in my life and now even that part of me is a failure.  Therapy/Xanax, why can't you be free?


  1. Challah often browns well before it is done inside. You probably didn't do anything wrong. Once it gets to the color you want, just cover it in tinfoil and bake the heck out of it (ok...well not that long) and it will cook through without burning.
    Also - how come you didn't get any challah at the wedding??? I'm sorry :(

  2. yeah, i think i was so terrified of overbaking that i repeatedly underbaked... but basically i needed a jewish mother to show me how! my mom's a wasp. but you're a pretty great stand-in!
    and the only reason i didn't get any challah at the wedding is because brit and i were busy getting drinks. not your fault!

  3. I'm sorry to hear you're having such a hard time with challa.
    Try this recipe:

    I usually skip the raisins, use 4 eggs (as opposed to 3 eggs + 2 yolks), and if you're out of honey you can just substitute sugar (or vice versa, substitute sugar with honey).

    I follow the recipe and make a dough and let it rest until doubled in size (in cold Chicago it takes more than 1 hr- or 1 hr in an oven that I preheat to be barely warm [180F]- then turn off and stick the dough in to rise THE OVEN MUST BE OFF)
    Once it's doubled in size, divide the dough into 3 (it bakes best as 3 separate loaves) and shape each loaf as you'd like- I suggest shaping each into a simple braid (3 ropes), and here's another trick: Shape the ropes into long ropes that taper a bit at the ends (a bit fatter in the middle) it makes the braid look like it's from a bakery. Let rest another hour in a warm place.
    Then bake at a preheated oven. After 30 min take out of the oven, lift one loaf and tap the bottom side (I usually use a spoon- as I'm wearing oven mitts) if it sounds hollow it's done. If not, bake for a bit longer- you can cover the dough with foil if it is getting too dark.

    Good luck!

  4. Thank you so much for the advice, Anon. It really helps to have the benefit of other people's wisdom, especially when I have so little of my own (at least where challah is concerned)!

  5. For me the key was the windowpane test. When you're done kneading, the bread should be elastic enough that it can stretch so thin that light shines through, without tearing. My challah was always denser than I wanted, until I learned about the windowpane test and realized that I just wasn't kneading it enough.

  6. You know what's funny: I used the windowpane test with great success on the buttery herb bread i made a year ago, but for some reason it never occurred to me to use it on other breads! Shows how daft I can be.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Sorry your challah didn't come out well! I made some last week for Rosh Hashannah and it was honestly the best challah I've ever tasted.

    I use the NY Time's recipe, and it's absolutely perfect:

    Hope you give it anther try!

  8. Hi Ari,
    I'm amassing an arsenal of wisdom and recipes from friends and blogfriends, so that when I have the courage to go back to the challah board I should be well prepared. This recipe will definitely go in the file (especially after seeing the photos on your blog!)


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