Challah

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Challah, the traditional Jewish egg bread, is a special thing: not too sweet or rich, it makes the perfect toast and, when it gets stale, even better bread pudding. It’s made by braiding bread dough and then sometimes sprinkling the loaves with poppy seeds. Delicious! I’ve heard, too, that the traditional way to make it at Rosh Hashanah is by braiding the dough into a crown, sometimes adding more sugar, sometimes adding raisins, and sometimes both.  Or you can try this version for an ultra-rich take on a classic.

Challah (adapted from James Beard’s Beard on Bread, the 1973 classic. Use this book, and your bread shall not disappoint)

  • 21g (3 packages) active dried yeast
  • 300mL (1 1/3 cups) warm water (warm to the touch, not boiling)
  • 13g (1 tbsp) sugar
  • 17g (1 tbsp) coarse salt
  • 45g (3 tbsp) softened butter
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 625g (5 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp water
  • poppy seeds, if using

Put the yeast into a large bowl with the warm water and leave for five minutes to proof. Add the sugar, salt, butter, eggs and the flour (slowly!). Beat the dough with a wooden spoon, adding more flour until you have quite a stiff dough.

Wash your bowl and then put the dough back in it to rise until it has doubled in size, around 1.5-2 hours. Punch the dough down gently, then divide it in half. Divide each half into three equal pieces and braid into a loaf like the picture above. If it’s been a while since you’ve braided your hair or, um, a loaf of bread–it’s left over middle, right over middle, left over middle and so on. Cover your loaves with clean tea towels and leave to double in bulk again. Sometime in there preheat your oven to 400°F. Brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds, if using. Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden, and the bread sounds hollow when tapped. Place on racks and slice when coolish.

Makes two loaves


Homemade Croissants

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There are some foods which seem hard, like sourdough bread, but which really just require a lot of patience. Yet others, like soufflés, are quick but require some dexterity. Unfortunately, croissants kind of need both patience and precision. I found that it can be helpful to remember the following tidbits:

  • Use awesome-quality ingredients. No joke, this is going to take a lot of time, so you might as well make your croissants the best they can be. That means high-gluten bread flour and European-style butter (like Lurpak), which has less water than American-style butter.
  • You literally have to bang out the cold butter to form it into a rectangle. Kind of fun, but not actually easy! Next time I might grate the frozen butter as they suggest here.
  • You can ensure that your beautiful layers stay intact by making sure that the dough and butter are as close to the same thickness as you can get them.
  • Keep your timing in mind–you need to make all your “turns,” put your unbaked croissants into the fridge to rise overnight, and THEN you get to shape them. Oh, and then they need to rise again. So beginning at something like 4 PM on a Saturday for a Sunday brunch would work well.

Making one’s own croissants may seem beyond abstruse when you can buy a couple for under $2. But if you’re curious, you should try making them–it’s fun and satisfying and, um, you can eat your efforts! After two days you will have the most beautiful croissants in the world, and some very serious bragging rights. As you will see, even a very human, mistake-making, not-all-that-fussed sort of cook (moi) can make these.

As a kind of aside, Montreal’s own Adam Gopnik wrote a lovely piece in the New Yorker the other day about baking bread with his mum. It was very sweet, and I recommend you search it out, even if it appears to be subscription-only.

Croissants (adapted from Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake, with a lot of help from Cook’s Illustrated and Top with Cinnamon)

  • 500g bread flour
  • 10g salt, plus a bit more for your egg wash
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 10g instant yeast
  • 300ml cool water
  • 300g chilled, unsalted butter
  • 1 medium egg for your glaze

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but this requires numbered instructions:

1) In a large bowl or your stand mixer, put salt and sugar in one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other. Add the water and mix on slow for two minutes, then on medium for another six minutes. It should be a pretty stiff dough. You can do this without a stand mixer…I guess. But having one makes your life so much easier!

2) Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball. Dust it with flour, put it in a clean plastic bag, and let it sit in the fridge for an hour.

3) OK, now it gets a little tricky: Roll out your dough into a rectangle about 60 x 20 cm and about 1 cm thick.

4) Flatten your butter to a rectangle about 40 x 19 cm by banging it all to hell with a rolling pin. You could also, as I suggest above, grate your frozen butter and form it into a rectangle. Now put the butter on your dough so it neatly covers the bottom two-thirds of your dough.

5) Now fold the extra dough over one-third of butter. Cut off the exposed bit of butter and put it on the dough you just folded over. Still with me? Fold the bottom half of the dough up until you have, like, a dough sandwich: two butter layers, three dough layers. Pinch the dough together on all sides and put it all back into the bag. Let it chill in the freezer for half an hour.

6) Take the dough out of the freezer (and out of the bag) and put it on the lightly floured work surface with the short end towards you. Roll it into a rectangle about 60 x 20 cm, as before. So now, fold up a third of the dough and fold the top third, so you again have a little square. Congratulations, you have made a single turn! Put the dough back into the plastic bag, back into the freezer, and let it chill for another hour. Repeat this stage twice more, putting the dough back into the freezer for another 30 minutes between turns. After turn two this is going to get really hard on your biceps, so try to coax a willing friend/family member into helping you.

7) Let it rest in the fridge (in its plastic bag) for 8 hours or overnight. I left mine about 12 hours with no problems.

8) When you are ready to shape (!!) line a couple of baking trays with your Silpat or parchment paper.

9) Put your dough onto a floured surface and roll it out to a rectangle a little more than 42 cm long and 30 cm wide. It should be about 7mm thick. Trim the edges to make them as neat as possible.

10) Cut the rectangle into two long rectangles, then cut triangles along the length of each strip. They should be about 15 cm high (from top to bottom) and 12 cm (at their widest point). You should have twelve triangles total.

11) Gently pull on the triangles to lengthen them, then cut a little slit in the base. This will help them become extra-crescenty. Now roll them up, base to end, and turn the ends towards each other slightly.

12) Put your croissants onto the baking trays, allowing space for them to expand. Put them inside a clean plastic bag (like a garbage bag) and let them sit in a cool room temperature spot for around 2 hours. My bread almost never “doubles in size,” but just leave them for two hours and you’ll be fine.

13) Preheat your oven to 200°C/390°F. Lightly whisk the egg with the pinch of salt. Brush it over the prepared croissants and bake for around 20 minutes until they’re golden. Don’t be alarmed if they come out of the oven swimming in a pile of melted butter. Just remove them to some cooling racks, and you’ll be A-OK.

And now that you know the drill, you can turn these into chocolate croissants, almond croissants, jam-filled croissants! Just put your filling of choice in before you shape. And enjoy.

Into the oven you go!

Into the oven you go!


Two Great Banana Breads

I made two different versions of banana bread this week and, unable to choose between them, have decided to share both. The first is my childhood favourite, a delicious use for spotty bananas; we used to have this in our house at least once a month, wrapped up in its shiny foil packet. It would start off whole and I’d cut a slice, then a little from one side, then a little from the other side. All my slices, even now, come out crooked.  But there’s something about the addition of sour cream that makes this banana bread really irresistible and moist, like everything I ever loved about cake. It comes from The Canadian Living Cookbook which was–and still is–a major fixture in my mum’s arsenal; it covers everything from candy to bread to casseroles and roasts.

I’m also going to share another version I got from Orangette (a lovely blog), as it’s very different; it’s chewy and spongy, with no milk or oil, but a very distinctive topping. It’s lighter, and cut in squares instead of slices, brownie-style. Plus, it has plenty of chocolate.

Whichever version you choose, banana bread is delicious, feels virtuous (just like carrot cake, which totally contains vegetables), and is very easy to make. It’s rich and delicious, and very easy to experiment with: feel free to add walnuts, pecans or chocolate chips, dates or raisins.

Banana Bread, version one (adapted from The Canadian Living Cookbook)

  • 1 cup mashed, very ripe banana
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sour cream (or 1/4 cup cream cheese and 1/4 cup milk, which is the combination I used)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Farenheit and grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine bananas, sugar, oil, sour cream and eggs. Mix thoroughly. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing gently but fully. You want to keep the mix as light as possibly while avoiding those dreaded bites of unmixed baking powder in your final product.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake for 55-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool in the pan 5 minutes before turning out onto a rack to cool completely. Slice.

Banana Bread, version two (adapted from Orangette)

  • 3 very ripe bananas (any size)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (or chopped dark chocolate, since the chips aren’t popular here)

Topping:

  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Farenheit and butter or spray an eight-inch square pan very well.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash the bananas well with a fork or potato masher (a very good tip). Add the eggs and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and vanilla, and stir to combine. Add 3/4 of the chocolate chips and stir briefly. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and set aside.

Meanwhile, mix together the topping ingredients and spread evenly over the banana bread batter. Sprinkle over the remaining chocolate chips. Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes, then turn out on a wire rack to cool completely. Cut it up and serve with butter for extra indulgence.


White Bread World

The Essential White Loaf (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess)

This recipe started out as part of another post, when this blog was still an academic study of the sensory effect of wine. Those entries are now gone, but I’ve decided to post this bread recipe separately, as it was among the best loaves I’ve ever baked, right up there with Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. It’s rather on the salty side, but I like it that way. You may, too.

  • 500g Strong white bread flour
  • 7g dry yeast or 15g fresh yeast (I only had 4.5 grams of dry yeast left, but it turned out fine)
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 300ml warm tap or potato water (the water from your just-boiled potatoes. I’d never heard of this technique before, but it does wonders)
  • 1 tbsp. unsalted butter

Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl and pour in the water, mixing thoroughly. I needed a bit more than 300ml, and you may too. Add the butter and mix some more before kneading. My dough was on the dry side, so kneading was hard work. If you can get into a little bit of a meditative state, though, kneading is fun work and really makes a difference in the final product.

Form the dough into a ball and put it in a buttered bowl, turning the ball until it’s fully greased. You can then put it in the fridge and let it rise slowly overnight, but this method doesn’t always work for me, so I’d suggest just putting it in an 80- degree (farenheit) oven for a couple of hours, or until it has doubled.

Preheat your oven to 220 degrees celsius (428 farenheit), punch down your puffy, squishy dough and knead for a minute. Then form it into a loaf and put it on your baking sheet with a tea towel on top, letting it rest for around 30 minutes until it’s very puffy. After that, dust your loaf with flour and bake it for 35 minutes or so until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. If you can resist, let it cool for a bit before slicing.


Brioche Bread

Photo by Iuliia Popova

Imagine a brioche roll—buttery, eggy and fluffy—and this is what you’ll get with this bread. It’s infinitely sliceable, and great when paired with honey. I gave some to my friend Iuliia after she took these photos for me, but I was still left with over half a loaf. Even so, it didn’t make it through the weekend.

I have such a soft spot for brioche, even though it forms only a small part of my culinary memories; when my family first moved to New York we’d sometimes go to E.A.T. café on Madison Avenue for lunch, and bring back brioche rolls for breakfast the next day. I had never had brioche before, and I’ve only had them a few times since. It’s none too popular a pastry in North America…or Estonia (though I think I’ve seen them in Pierre before). But now that’s all been fixed with this bread. It’s weekday brioche, as it were, with less fiddling and fewer pesky little moulds to deal with.

Photo by Iuliia Popova

The Recipe (adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen):

I’m going to suggest you use metric measurements, as I’ve provided below. I made the recipe once using imperial measurements in cups and it turned out really flat. I’ve become quite a fan of using weight measurements since moving to Estonia; it takes less time to weigh than to measure and it’s more accurate.

250 grams all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
177 ml milk
57 grams (OK, four tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 egg & 1 large egg yolk

Mix ¾ cup flour, sugar, salt and dry yeast by hand or with a mixer in a large bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the milk and butter mixture together until it’s warm, then pour it into the dry ingredients and stir vigorously for about three minutes. Add the egg, yolk, and another ½ cup flour and beat again for three minutes. Stir in the last of the flour and beat—yes, again—for another three minutes until it’s all incorporated and uniform.

Scrape down the bowl and cover the top with cling film. Let it rise for one hour until doubled. (Note: mine never quite doubled, but it’ll rise well in the oven, don’t worry). Butter and flour your loaf tin and once the dough is done rising, scrape it into the pan. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise again for around thirty minutes, but after fifteen minutes remove the plastic wrap and preheat your oven to 375 degrees Farenheit (190 degrees Celsius).

Bake for 35-40 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the tin for five minutes, then move to a cooling rack for another few minutes. Enjoy!