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Archive for the ‘bread’ Category

When you write a food blog, people think that you cook all the time and that everything you make is gourmet. While I do cook quite frequently, most of what I make is really pretty simple. Recent past dinners have included a big plate of green beans with toasted almonds. Oven-roasted corn on the cob covered with grated cheese. Marinated zucchini alongside roasted cumin and cayenne sweet potatoes. Panzanella. As you can tell, I eat a lot of simple veggies.

So, it is such a treat when someone cooks dinner for me. And a few weeks ago, I was the recipient of just such a treat. Not only was I treated to a home-cooked dinner, but my Israeli friend C. baked me pitot (the plural for pita in Hebrew).

C. had been disappointed to learn that despite my supposed foodie status, I use a bread machine to make challah. “What, it braids it for you in the machine?” he asked.

When divulging this embarrassing little secret (well, I guess it’s not much of a secret since I unabashedly shared it early on right here), I explained that in my experience, baking is chemistry, and while I have in the past studied science, I am no chemist. “But no,” C. said, “baking bread is physics.”

Well, if I am no chemist, then I am certainly no physicist.

Luckily, C. is.

And this is only one of his manifold gifts. He plays guitar, has a knack and appreciation for vocabulary and grammar in all the languages he speaks, and combines a piercing intellect with a direct, no-nonsense style that is refreshingly candid without being harsh.

So, I arrived in his kitchen the other evening to find a square white bowl filled to the brim with a slightly deflated mound of off-white dough. After heavily flouring the counter, C. kneaded the dough a few times…

pita dough, kneaded

… and then rolled it out about ¼ inch thick (or a centimeter, in keeping with the scientific and Israeli metric system).

pita dough, rolled out

Now, this is where C.’s methodology differs from that of other pita-makers. And it was at this point that C. launched into an explanation about what conditions are important in helping the pita form its pocket. Most people normally separate the dough into about a dozen small balls and roll each one into a flat round. But having each pita the same thickness helps ensure consistent results (granted, we did not discuss the possibility of all the pitot failing to form pockets…). And, perhaps more importantly, rolling out the dough only once is significantly more efficient than rolling dough out twelve times. And, I was getting hungry.

OK, back to physics. Roll the dough too thin and the pita will be crisp and cracker-like; too thick and it may never form a pocket. So, one centimeter is what has worked best in C.’s experience. I think he mentioned something about thermodynamics in the oven, the expansion of gas in the dough as it’s baking, the importance of an oven that distributes heat evenly from top and bottom to ensure equal pita sides (which he has yet to master) … and I’m not sure what else … I was getting hungry.

So C. forged ahead, cutting out pitot in just the right size with a bowl. Rather than re-rolling the scraps (inefficient), C. cuts the pitot close together to reduce wasted dough and bakes the triangular/square/star-shaped scraps which often form mini-pockets with crunchy end-bits.

cutting out pitot with bowl

As he was cutting, C. continued to explain, “the ambient temperature is important for the rising of pitot,” so I checked the wall thermometer: a pretty high 74˚F – plus, it was humid outside. This did not bode well for the pita.

C. looked concerned. My stomach grumbled.

My bread machine was looking pretty good right about then.

But so was the pita as C. finally laid it out on the baking sheets to rise as he turned on the oven to preheat (500˚F). He said it would it would take the oven longer to preheat than it would to prepare the rest of dinner.

pitot and end pieces, ready for final rising

While the pitot were rising, we set to work on everything else. I sliced up a caprese salad, cut the tips off the haricots verts that C. sautéed with garlic and dill, and then we  threw salmon on a grill pan with some olive oil and freshly-squeezed lemon juice.

Finally, the pitot and scraps had sufficiently risen …

pitot after final rising, ready for oven

… and were ready for a quick bake in the hot oven. No more than about 5 minutes per tray. No opening the oven to peek (or to take pictures). Just trust the physics. Patience. Ahhhh…

pitot starting to puff

And the pitot puffed as we sat on the kitchen floor in front of the oven.

the pockets are forming!

We took one pita batch out and put the next in. I continued to sit in rapt attention in front of the oven door.

And then the smoke alarm went off.

I have never been a fan of cooking salmon on a stove top.

C. quickly disconnected the alarm as I removed the grill pan from the fire and opened every single window. And kept checking the pita in the oven (through the glass…I did not open the door!).

After we pulled the last pita out, perfect pockets intact, we sat down to eat, mopping up the olive oil and balsamic from the caprese with the warm fluffy dough.

I am not sure I’ll ever be able to buy pita in a store again.

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community challah

When I moved to DC,  I chose my apartment location for its proximity to my office and the Dupont Circle metro station (a straight shot to the station near my parents’ house, but still far enough away to afford me privacy), and its “safe distance” from the then-starting-to-gentrify, but in my parents’ mind still-sketchy, 14th street.

Little did I know that someone must have been looking out for me.

I happened to be remarkably and somehow strategically close to the Kesher Israel Synagogue and therefore within walking distance of an incredibly warm and welcoming community. This is the synagogue that really defined community for me and helped direct me towards figuring out what type of person and Jew I aspire to be.

It was here that I first joined a synagogue with my own membership.

That I got invited to the Rabbi’s house for lunch!

That I made and served my first shabbat meal.

I have since joined other synagogues and communities, and have even gotten a Rabbi’s invitation or two, but the community that will always be a point of reference for me will always be Kesher.

And a major part of this community was food. One problem with DC at the time is that there were very few places to buy fresh challah. As a result, many people baked their own. And since I was a very novice cook at the time (and have still never really developed into much of a baker — see labo(u)r of love), my parents bought me a bread machine. And then I got a recipe for challah from a couple that was known for being really good cooks — Eric and Aliza.

Eric and Aliza's challah recipe - the original 4X6 index card

Eric and Aliza's challah recipe - the original 4X6 index card

I made this challah so many times and became somewhat well-known in the community for bringing it to different people’s shabbat meals, that once Eric and Aliza brought their own home-made challah to someone’s home and the host remarked, “oh, you made Zahavah’s challah!” (Though for the record, I always always always referred to it as Eric and Aliza’s challah!).

Bread Machine Challah

Based, in gratitude, on Eric and Aliza’s challah recipe, so generously shared and so shamelessly sold as my own. This recipe is meant to be made in a bread machine, on the “dough” setting. It is really easy and requires little more than 5-10 minutes to place all ingredients in the machine, 90 minutes to run the “dough” setting, and then 20 minutes in the oven to bake (with additional time to let rise if you want). This is a somewhat forgiving recipe. I have accidentally added 5C flour instead of 4 and I once forgot to add the egg and added it before the last kneading cycle — most of the time, it has come out just fine. And the challah freezes pretty well if you wrap in aluminum foil and keep in a ziplock bag.

Makes enough for a meal of 8-10 adults: 2 medium-sized challahs (3- or 4-stand braids) or 1 large challah (6-strand braid)and 1 roll.

- 1 1/8 C warm water

- 1/4 C vegetable oil

- 1 egg

- honey (I never measure, but probably ~ 2 T) – NECESSARY IF USING WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR

- 1/4 C sugar (I make it a heaping 1/4 C)

- 1 t salt

- 4 C flour: I almost always use 2 C white all-purpose flour, 2 C wheat flour

- 1 packet dry yeast (2 1/4 t)

- additional egg for egg wash (optional)

Measure wet ingredients into bread machine bowl – water, oil, egg. Make sure water is warm, not hot, to activate the yeast without cooking the egg.

Add sugar, honey, salt and flour(s). Make sure that the salt is under all of the flour because you don’t want it to touch the yeast.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the yeast into the well.

Put “bowl” into bread machine and set to “dough” setting.

After 90 minutes, challah dough should be ready — it should have risen to the top of the bowl.

Preheat oven to 350°F

Knead the dough a little bit more on a well floured board (or your counter). Stickiness will depend on various factors such as altitude, humidity, etc. But, again, I never mind a bit of flour on my baked goods (see “sticky fingers.”)

Divide and braid as appropriate:

- For 3-stranded braid – braid as you would braid hair, alternating strands from right and left and consistently put “outside” strand over center strand

- For 4-stranded braid – always braid from in one direction (either right or left…does not matter, just be consistent), putting “outside” strand (A) over second strand (B), under third strand (C), and then over fourth strand (D); then new outside strand (B) goes over C, under D, and over A; then new outside strand C goes over D, under A, over B, etc. NOTE – this is how I do it. I have seen other directions elsewhere that are all the same, but different from my methodology. I like mine and it’s the only one I can vouch for

4-stranded braids - after rising

4-stranded braids - after rising

- For 6-stranded braid: hard to describe, but very similar to the 4-stranded braid. I believe I got this method from Spice and Spirit, a Lubavitch cookbook that left much to be desired for me, but did have some pretty good diagrams for braiding

- To complete any braid: I generally start a braid about 1/4 of the way from the top. When I reach the end, I pinch the ends together and tuck them under. I then return to the top of the braid and repeat. I do not start a braid by pinching everything together at the top because I find this makes a very messy end that does not match the other one.

- Simple roll: roll out small piece of dough about 8 inches and twist into a knot, then tuck top end underneath bottom of roll

4-stranded braid and some rolls, after rising

4-stranded braid and some rolls, after rising

After loaves are formed, place on lightly greased and floured (or parchment covered) cookie sheet (I sometimes use Silpat). Allow to rise again (not required, but better) on top of pre-heating oven, covered with clean cotton towel

OPTIONAL: make egg wash – beat egg with 1 t cold water and brush over challah with pastry brush twice – once before putting in oven, and then after 10 minutes in the oven; this will help give the crust a nice sheen

Bake in oven for 20 minutes (sometimes 25) until challah is golden brown (NOTE – some people like it slightly undercooked and doughey)

Cool on baking rack. Best served warm (can wrap in aluminum foil and reheat at ~200°F for 20 minutes)

challah fresh from the oven; no egg wash used

challah fresh from the oven; no egg wash used

Variations:

- sprinkle sesame seeds or poppy seeds after first egg wash

- rosemary challah — omit honey and use 100% white flour; crush 2 T dried rosemary with mortar and pestle and add 1T with dry ingredients; mix the second T rosemary with kosher salt or fleur de sel and sprinkle after first egg wash

- cinnamon challah - great for shavout; add 1.5T cinnamon with dry ingredients; can also add a cinnamon sugar coating after first egg wash

sprinkle challah – another kid-pleaser from Caroline of “noodles and nuggets” fame – add chocolate or colored sprinkes into the dough or onto the top of the challah after the first egg wash

Do you make your challah by hand, or do you use a bread machine?

How do you braid your challah?

What are your favorite variations?

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