I was so eager to tell you about last weekend’s amazing pot pie that I neglected to tell you about the new kitchen tool I bought myself. You’re probably thinking that this is no big deal, that an avid home cook like me must buy kitchen tools the way normal people buy lattes or chapstick (or whatever it is normal people buy on a regular basis). But I don’t. In fact, I basically never buy kitchen stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary (see the French press incident and the must-have melon baller). Desperate times call for new kitchen supplies, but most of the time I’m pretty happy with the tried and trues.
Half of my pots and pans were my dads. There are two cast iron skillets, a ten inch frying pan, and a small yellow enamel pot with a spout that mom would use to make my macaroni and cheese and my roommate sophomore year used to heat up her daily cup of chai. I also have dad’s old stainless steal steamer basket. He eventually replaced it with a rubber-footed one that wouldn’t scratch the bottom of his pans, but my pans are already far beyond hope. I have his old box grater – the white plastic handle broke off years ago – and a wood handled metal spatula that might have once belonged to grandma. It’s not pretty, but it can dislodge and flip the most stubbornly stuck fried eggs. I love my little collection of reject kitchen tools, most of which my mom sent off with me to my first college apartment.
But my collection is woefully lacking in the baking department. When mom was in town for Thanksgiving, she had to cut the butter into the flour for her pie crust with a fork. (Oh, the horror!) “You don’t have a pastry knife?” (Two weeks later, guess what I got for Chanukah?) I use a knife and a tumbler instead of cookie cutters and Ziploc bags to pipe icing. And up until this past weekend, I’ve been using a chef’s knife to cut my bread dough. Have you ever tried to cut yeasty, elastic dough with a knife? It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not easy. Luckily, if you have $9.95 and internet access, you can order a bench scraper from Amazon and never have to deal with the agony of tearing away at your dough with an ill-suited knife. That’s what I discovered last weekend, as I quickly and easily divided my challah dough into three perfectly even pieces with two quick and painless cuts. And what a beautiful challah it made!
In other news, Matt’s home!!! Just in time for me to turn the remnants of that loaf of challah into the fluffiest French toast a man could want. It’s so nice to have a reason to cook again (and to have Matt’s company, that’s nice too.)
Challah from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (.25 ounce) salt
1-1/3 teaspoons (.15 ounce) instant yeast
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) vegetable oil
2 large (3.3 ounces) eggs, slightly beaten
2 large (1.25 ounces) egg yolks, slightly beaten
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp to 1-1/8 cups (7 to 9 ounces) water, at room temperature
2 egg whites, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
Sesame or poppy seeds for garnish
Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs and yolks, and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture. Mix with a spoon (or on low speed with the paddle attachment) until all the ingredients gather and form a ball. Add the remaining water, if needed.
Sprinkle flour on the counter, transfer the dough to the counter, and knead for about 10 minutes (or mix at medium-low speed for 6 minutes with the dough hook), sprinkling in more flour if needed to make a soft, supple, but not sticky dough. The dough should register approximately 80°F (27°C).
Lightly oil a large bowl. Form the dough into a boule and transfer into the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Ferment for 1 hour at room temperature.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead for 2 minutes to degas. Re-form it into a ball, return the ball to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and ferment for an additional hour. It should be at least 1-1/2 times its original size.
Remove the dough from the bowl and divide it into 3 equal pieces for 1 large loaf, or 6 pieces for 2 loaves. (Or, for a celebration challah, divide it into 3 equal pieces and combine 2 of those pieces and form them into 1 large dough. Take this larger piece and divide it into 3 equal pieces. Take the smaller dough and divide it into 3 pieces as well; in the end, you will have 3 large pieces and 3 small pieces.) Regardless of the size of the loaves you decide to make, form each of the pieces into a boule, cover them with a towel, and let them rest on the counter for 10 minutes.
Roll out the pieces into strands, each the same length, thicker in the middle and slightly tapered toward the ends. Braid them using the 3-braid method shown. (If making the celebration challah, lay the smaller braid on top of the larger braid, gently pressing the smaller braid onto the larger to adhere.) Line a sheet pan with baking parchment and transfer the loaf or loaves to the pan. Brush the loaves with the egg wash. Mist the loaves with spray oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap or place the pan in a food-grade plastic bag.
Proof at room temperature for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the dough has grown to 1-1/2 times its original size.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) (325°F (160°C) for the celebration challah) with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Brush again with egg wash and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
Bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees and continue baking for 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the loaf. The bread should be a rich golden brown and register 190°F (88°C) in the center.
When done, transfer the bread to a rack and cool for at least 1 hour before slicing or serving.
Yield: Makes 1 large braided loaf, 2 smaller loaves, or 1 large double-braided celebration loaf