I just ate a taco and half a quesadilla, despite the fact that I decided to bake bread tonight rather than cook because my stomach is still feeling a little too delicate for a real dinner.
I’m not what you would call “clever.” My stomach is also not feeling what you would call “good.” It’s a good thing the Kaopectate and I have developed such a close relationship over the past week.
Tonight’s adventure was in challah-making via Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, or “what happens when you try to make a recipe that specifically calls for bread flour with all purpose flour, and also you’re overtired and a little dizzy from not eating all day because you were so busy at work that you forgot.” Let’s say it was an experiment, rather than acknowledging that it was actually me being too lazy to hunt around for bread flour after work and wanting down time during rising to take naps and/or watch So You Think You Can Dance.* There was no yeast proofing, just dump, mix and knead; or rather, let the KitchenAid Professional 600 knead.
Plus, challah, Even if it comes out not so hot, you can soak that shit in some eggs and honey and heavy cream, fry it in some butter, throw some fruit on top and there’s the best breakfast ever. Scratch that: throw in some sausage and that is the best breakfast ever.
*I can’t help it, I like to watch people demonstrate actual exceptional talent. However: Does ANYONE like the Mary Murphy scream? Clearly, the show is encouraging her to speak as loudly and shrilly as possible AT ALL times. Bring on Mia Michaels, who is able to be batshit insane at standard decibel levels, and stop destroying all my god crystal, show.**
**Heh, “good crystal.” I TOTALLY have that around.
I don’t actually know if it was (1) my lack of bread flour; (2) the really high humidity level today; (3) a terrible, terrible recipe or (4) the fact that God hates me because I can’t help laughing at people when they fall down the stairs, but my dough was more lumpy batter than dough. This picture is after one of the seven thousand additions of flour, and you can still see how wet and sticky it looks. I think I ended up with about double that, or fourteen thousand additions of flour; I must have used at least a cup more than the recipe indicated.
The KitchenAid apparently also enjoys So You Think You Can Dance, because near the end of the knead it was starting to do a little popping and locking across the counter. And still, my dough that should have been “soft but not sticky” was more “sticky and also kinda sticky.” So sticky, in fact, that it stuck to the oiled bowl I finally managed to get it into with no small amount of elbow grease and cursing. I think I broke four spatulas.
Having never made challah before, I don’t know if this rising and shaping process is standard for the bread itself or just standard for the detail freaks at the Culinary Institute of America, a school I considered attending at some future point until I read Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef and realized how very, very low my desire to spend weeks learning to strain consommé through an egg white raft is in spite of my desire to obtain a culinary degree.*
Or perhaps the rising procedure was developed by Thomas Keller. I wouldn’t be surprised.
There was an initial 1-hour rise; okay, par for the course. Then, instead of punching the dough down – which is always my favorite part – you “fold” the dough, bringing the corners of the dough (which is in a ROUND BOWL if I may quibble over my own detail, CIA) over the top. This is especially fun when the dough is already sticking to your oiled bowl. I may still be a little bitter about not getting to punch.
Then the dough rests some more.
*Incidentally, this is not entirely different from the reason I wussed out of grad school after finishing my MA despite wanting to get a PhD – a very, very low desire to spend 10 years in a library basement reading 600 year old books written in indecipherable Latin (my scholarly interest is in Wacky Popes of the Middle Ages). Seriously, 15th-century scribes: you can’t just write “Q” and expect me to know which preposition you mean. Although, one bonus: in the basement of the Harvard Law Library, there’s a 16th century book covered in the HUMAN SKIN of a pirate who was captured and flayed alive. I figure, if that’s not enough to get me through 10 years of medieval paleography, nothing is. So I went to law school instead. See above, re: “not clever.”
The you turn it out of the bowl and cut in into three equalish sized pieces.
Then it rests again. Because the process of lying inert on a pastry board and suffering the indignity of being cut twice is apparently quite taxing.
Then you start the braiding process, which you would imagine starts with rolling the three dough hunks out into ropes you can then braid, except that it doesn’t. Each piece of dough is painstakingly patted out into a 6-inch by 10-inch rectangle. The long edges of the rectangle are folded in on themselves twice, the seam sealed and the resulting logs rolled out into ropes you can then braid. I suppose I should just be thankful that each step of this process did not require resting, or I might have had to call out of work tomorrow.
Eventually, you do get to braid…and then cover the dough in egg wash and let it rest and rise for another full hour because being braided, now THAT is an energy-sapper. Then you egg wash it again, and into the oven it goes. And in the meantime, you’ve seen all the filler segments of So You Think You Can Dance and missed all the dance-for-your-life solos, and you’re pretty sure that you’ve over-kneaded your dough because it seems a little more elastic than it’s supposed to be. (So I suppose I can’t begrudge it all the resting.)
This is why I am willing to pay out the ass for artisan bread; I figure you’re not just paying for flour and water, you’re paying by the hour for some poor schmuck who has to get up at 3 in the morning to do this. And for the opportunity to watch So You Think You Can Dance unmolested. That’s worth at least $3.50.
At some point the kitchen started to smell really nice, which is really the main reason anyone bakes bread at home anymore. If I could buy that in a spray can along with my $3.50 bread, I totally would.
Or maybe I just shouldn’t be making a yeast bread at 11:13 on a Thursday night, and the process would be more enjoyable.
In the end, I did manage to produce an intact if fissured loaf of challah. It had a nice deep brown crust that thumped pleasantly when lightly whacked.
It’s not quite as airy as one would expect challah to be, due to the five gajillion mistakes I made while making it. But it smells like challah and tastes like challah and I fully expect that it will make an exceptional plate of french toast this Saturday morning, perhaps in the style of this old favorite. And I will eat it, regardless of the state of my GI tract, and I will love it right up until and including the moment I snatch the New York Times crossword puzzle and sprint for the loo.