Sunday, January 23, 2011

a little incentive

When I lived in Boston, I had no reason to bake my own bread.

I lived within walking distance of several bakeries – I had Kupel's, Yi Soon, and Cafe Japonaise just a few blocks away. For a few months, I even had a sublet on the same street as Clear Flour. With a quick stroll and a few dollars, I could easily satisfy every desire of my little carboholic heart.

Here in Beijing, I have every reason to bake my own bread. The one import store within walking distance has mediocre baked goods, and the city's awful traffic leaves me reluctant to trek further afield. Frankly, I could have a yeasted dough on its second proofing in the time that it would take me to go out and come back with better bread.

Instead, I'm working with the ten-pound bag of flour in my freezer, the brick of instant active yeast in my fridge, and a half-size electric oven with a single baking tray. Necessity is the mother of invention: I finally came up with a recipe for the kind of challah they sell at Kupel's.

The challah from Kupel's is soft and chewy, with a dense, almost doughy texture. It's the kind of bread that you can tear into without bothering with a knife, the kind of bread that tastes good plain. Placed on a countertop with easy access, it has a tendency to disappear with alarming speed.

I tried my hand at replicating Kupel's-style challah when I went through my sweet yeasted bread phase last summer, with little success. Though the internet abounded with recipes for light, airy challah, instructions for soft, chewy challah proved elusive, and frankly, I lacked the incentive to puzzle out a recipe myself. Why persist with hard-crusted, airy failures when I could find soft, chewy perfection just minutes away?

As it turns out, the threat of passing two-and-a-half hours in some of the world's worst traffic is more than adequate incentive. After re-checking the internet for soft, chewy challah instructions and still coming up empty-handed, I sat down to reason my way to a recipe.

Soft bread suggests a lowish baking temperature (it's high temperature that produces crackling crusts.) Chewy bread is bread with heavy gluten development. Dense bread means a dough on the drier side (the wetter the dough, the lighter the bread.)

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the dough for soft, chewy challah might look more like pasta dough than bread dough. So I cross-referenced my pasta dough recipe with my sweet yeast bread recipes, sketched out ingredients and quantities, and set to work.

A few hours later: soft, chewy challah, and not a traffic jam in sight. And yes, I did tear into it without bothering with a knife.

Soft, Chewy Challah

I used instant active yeast in this recipe, which is mixed in directly with the dry ingredients. I haven't tested it out yet with regular active yeast, but if you try it, bump up the quantity to one-and-a-half teaspoons, and stir it into the lukewarm water along with the sugar. Let it sit until foamy, then add the mixture to the flour, and continue with the recipe from that point.

(Makes one large loaf. Can be frozen. Stale leftovers make for good bread pudding.)

Dump four cups of all-purpose flour (twenty ounces) in a big mixing bowl. Add a quarter-cup of sugar, one teaspoon instant active yeast and one teaspoon salt. Stir briefly to combine.

Separate four eggs. Set the yolks aside. (Use the whites for meringues.)

Add one-and-a-half cups lukewarm water. Stick your hand in the bowl and mix until you have the beginnings of dough. Add the yolks along with a quarter-cup of vegetable oil. Mix until you have lumpy dough that is only a little sticky. If the mixture seems very dry, with a lot of loose flour in the bowl, add a few more tablespoons of water.

Roll up your sleeves. Turn the dough out on a clean countertop.

Get ready for a workout. This dough has to be kneaded for at least twenty minutes, if not longer. It's fine if you take breaks, but don't be tempted to cut back on the kneading time - the texture of the bread will suffer.

The dough will start out tacky, but it shouldn't be too wet. If it is, sprinkle it with additional flour. As you knead, the dough will gradually lose its sticky, lumpy quality, and start to pull together, becoming more elastic. Keep going. The dough will lose elasticity and develop more resistance. Stop once it develops a smooth, almost skin-like texture.

Shape the dough into a ball, and place it back in the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place for an hour to rise.

Press down on the dough to deflate. Divide into three (or four, or six) pieces, and roll or squeeze each piece out into a rope. (It will be quite resistant.) Braid the ropes together. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Cover with foil, and leave in a warm place for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Crack an egg in a small bowl and beat it well. Brush the challah with beaten egg. If you like, you can sprinkle it with sesame or poppy seeds.

Place the challah in the oven. Bake uncovered for fifteen minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown in color, then tent with foil and bake for another fifteen to twenty minutes.

Transfer to a baking rack to cool. Store in a plastic bag to keep it from drying out.


Virgin In The Volcano said...

Looks good to me. And I just made lunch out of a challah from Schwartz's. (

Bitsy said...

Could it be done with honey rather than sugar?

Solomon said...

Are you sure you aren't Jewish?

Seriously, nice recipe. Came out soft and chewy as advertised with a nicely brown, but not overly firm, crust.

A good fraction of the loaf is destined to become french toast in tomorrow's third monthiversary (mensiversary?) celebration.

adele said...

Virgin - Nice!

Bitsy - I don't see why not, as long as you use a mild-flavored honey (like clover), and cut back a little on the water.

Solomon - Two years as Hillel head chef has to count for something, right? :P

I'm glad it turned out well. Let me know how it works for French toast!

Solomon said...

Update: It works really well for french toast. I might go so far as to say it made for some seriously awesome french toast.

adele said...

Solomon: Nice! Do you have a favorite recipe for French toast, or do you improvise?

Solomon said...

I generally improvise. Something to the effect of eggs, a little milk or half & half, a little vanilla, and maybe a little sugar and cinnamon, depending on what bread I'm using. And, cooked in butter, of course.

Lindsey said...

This looks awesome, so much so that I might have to try it soon. I buy 5 pound bags of flour at costco and keep them in 5 gallon home depot buckets....there's something wrong with me.

adele said...

Solomon - I agree that butter is crucial. :)

Lindsey - Bulk quantities of flour?Nothing wrong with that!

Cakelaw said...

Good for you! Your bread looks fantastic.

Googie Baba said...

I just made some bread. It was a big hit. I don't have a bread maker. I make it is the cuisinart.

adele said...

Googie - Do you mean you knead the dough in the Cuisinart, or does Cuisinart have a breadmaking attachment, too? (I know those machines have a lot of attachments - I can't keep up with them all!)

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

After my brioche debacle this summer I am finally gathering up the courage to give flaky, buttery bread a go again. Your challah looks lovely!

And if it's any consolation, I miss the bakeries of Brookline too. Now that I live in Beacon Hill I just don't get over there as much as I'd like.

adele said...

Plum - Brioche is on my to-do list too!

Avala said...

I literally went through the same thought process as you trying to find a good challah recipe that was chewy and soft and squishable. I started looking at pasta recipes just like you did too.

In my searches i found your recipe and I have been sooo excited to try it, and I finally did this morning.. it is everything i dreamed it would be! I made it with regular active dry yeast and couldn't find my teaspoon so i just tossed in a whole packet but it came out amazingly. Thank you so much for posting this :D

adele said...

Avala - You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it!