Archive for the ‘bread’ Category

Some friends and I are planning an island vacation. We spent hours and hours and hours choosing an island, the right flights, and the best hotel. In just over a week (1 week!!!), we’ll be lying on a beach, being served drinks. By hot men. Well, maybe the last part if we’re lucky.

I haven’t yet told my friends about my last beachy vacation when Elvera and I almost missed our flight home. (Ok, so I just spoiled the ending of the story).

In case you forgot, let me remind you about that trip. For a week in July 2009, my friend Elvera and I stayed with Joe and Victoria and their growing family in Panama City, and were wined and dined  nearly every night. Having quickly found a favorite restaurant and eaten there twice in four days, I was determined to meet the chef. With such a tight-knit Jewish community in Panama, it wasn’t difficult to get the email address of Darna owner and chef, Ayelet. We agreed to meet on the morning of my departure at her newest venture – Darna Bread. Leaving the next day for a few days of island hopping in Bocas del Toro, we settled on Sunday morning a few hours before our flight home.

After arriving from Bocas at nearly midnight and frantically re-packing our over-stuffed bags, we awoke early Sunday morning determined to find Darna Bread. With directions in hand, we found a taxi and in our broken Spanish (read: Elvera speaks medical Spanish and I can pick my way through a menu) tried to get to the cute little coffeehouse we had heard so much about from the locals. An hour later, several pantomime conversations with strangers on the street, and a little bit of a hike, we finally finally finally found our way. In addition to eating a delicious shakshuka breakfast, snapping photos, and checking out the lending library on the walls, I had the chance to sit down with Ayelet. She told me of her plans to open a third restaurant (now open) and how she and her sister ended up in Panama from Israel. We shared recipes and her challah recipe below has become a favorite.

As we were chatting, Elvera kept giving me looks. Tapping her watch. Leaning her head towards the door. I, of course, saw her…and ignored her. She finally came over and said we really had to go. Just a few  more questions? She frowned. A few questions later, I joined her back at our table, ate the last, now cold, bites of shakshuka. We called a taxi, paid, threw our remaining bread in a bag. As we jumped into the taxi, our phone rang — it was Joe, wondering where we were and sounding a bit panicked. We assured him we were en route. We had the taxi wait while we ran up to grab our luggage and hug Joe, Vic, and little Jack goodbye.

We got to the airport 59 minutes before our flight was scheduled to take off. That’s one minute after the check-in cutoff. Some spectacular negotiating tactics finally got us onto the flight and on our way home.

Luckily, I haven’t had to use any of these negotiating tactics since then.

Darna Challah

This is Ayelet’s recipe with just a few little tweaks. I use my mixer to knead the dough. And I like Ayelet’s use of a bowl of water in the oven while the challot are baking to help the crust form. This recipe makes 2 very large challot. It’s a little more time intensive than my bread machine challah recipe, but I actually think it has a better texture.

– 3 T dry yeast

– 3 T sugar

– warm water (~2C)

– 1 kg bread flour (aka 8 cups)

– 1 T salt

– 3 eggs

– 3/4 C oil

– 1 egg for egg wash

– sesame seeds

Prepare the yeast. Dissolve yeast in ~1/2 C warm water and sugar. Allow to percolate until frothy. This can take up to 15 minutes.

Mix the dough. Throw flour, yeast mixture, salt, eggs, and oil into your mixer. Start to knead with the dough hook and slowly add water “until you get a nice dough.” OK – I realize these are not the most exact directions, but this is what Ayelet suggested and I’m sticking to it. I added about 1.5 cups of water. Then I had to add some flour. Then a little water. And a little more flour. But it just kind of worked. Eventually the dough came together, stopped sticking to the bowl and completely wrapped around the dough hook.

Knead. I let my mixer do some of the kneading (about 5+ minutes) and then knead it by hand on a floured surface for another 5+ minutes.

Let rise. Roll dough into a ball and let rise in the mixer bowl, covered with a kitchen towel, for about 1 hour over a warm oven until it doubles in bulk. Punch the dough down, knead it and let it rise again until doubled. Divide dough into six or eight equal-sized balls, depending on whether you plan to make 3- or 4-stranded challot (or 12 or 16 if you’re planning to make 4 challot).

Braid. Divide dough into equal-sized pieces – the number of pieces depends on how many challahs and what type of braid you plan to make. Roll each piece of dough into a long strand. If you want to make a four-stranded braid as pictured, start by pinching four strands together at one end. A four-stranded braid is actually weaving and always starts on the same side (rather than conventional braiding that involves alternately crossing strands from the right and left). Weave the leftmost strand over its neighboring strand, under the next one, and over the fourth, laying it down on the far right of the braid. Pick up the new leftmost strand and weave over-under-over as before. Continue until the end of the braid and tuck the ends under the loaf.

Bake. Whisk an egg with a few splashes of cold water. Brush this egg wash over the challah and sprinkle with seeds if you’d like. Place a bowl of water in the oven to create steam. Bake at 350°F for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.

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So, my recipe for you today is not very original. Rather, it’s a slight variation on a previous recipe that is one of my favorites. But, this variation is great. And I had it for dinner tonight.

No, I didn’t eat biscotti for dinner! But I was in a baking mood this weekend. First, I made some almond biscotti. Then chocolate hazelnut, with brown sugar instead of white, pretty similar to my old stand-by. And I learned a great trick for skinning hazelnuts — to wrap the hazelnuts in a towel for about 5 minutes, allowing the trapped steam to separate the skins from the nuts.

Finally, I baked bread. With a bit of a sweet tooth, I turned to another favorite recipe that I adapted ever so slightly to my palate. Whole wheat cinnamon bread. I made the dough in my bread machine, then rolled it out and filled it with a cinnamon and (brown) sugar mixture. As the loaves were cooling, some of the melted cinnamon sugar dripped down, pooling beneath the rack, a harbinger of the gooey flavors to come. I cut in to the still-warm bread, the sugar sticking to the knife, and ate a slices (ok, two slices). The next day I toasted a couple more and slathered them with butter for breakfast. And tonight, dinner.

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Toast

makes 2 loaves

– 1 1/4 C warm water

-1/4 C vegetable oil

– 1 egg

– 1/4 C white sugar

– 2 C bread flour

– 2 C whole wheat flour

– 1 t salt

– 2 1/4 t yeast

– 2 T cinnamon

– 1/4 C brown sugar

Prepare the dough. Add the liquid ingredients to the bread machine followed by sugar, flours, salt, and yeast, making sure that the salt and yeast do not touch. Run the dough cycle – this takes 90 minutes.

Add the cinnamon. Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar. Roll up each loaf and place on cookie sheet, seam side down. Cover with cloth and allow to rise while preheating oven to 350ºF.

Bake. Bake loaves for 20 minutes on a cookie sheet. Cool on rack for a few minutes before slicing.

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tea and pita

While I was in Israel earlier this month, I made a quick jaunt to Cairo and the only flight back to Tel Aviv was at midnight. At 2:30 in the morning, I finally arrived at Sarah’s doorstep with my over-sized luggage and met for the first time. I felt horrible arriving so late, and had repeatedly asked whether it was OK, and Sarah reassured me that she was accustomed to her husband arriving on flights at all hours of the night.

We didn’t say much to one another on this first meeting. Just a few tired smiles, a handshake, and Sarah opened up her home to me. I dragged my suitcase upstairs to and flopped onto the bed she has prepared for me.

The next morning, I awoke to the smell of pita toasting in the oven with za’atar and found a full Israeli breakfast on the table – including salad and labne. Mmm, savory breakfasts.

Over the next few days, Sarah played local tour guide, taking me to see the bell caves and ancient olive press in Beit Guvrin, the shuk in Ramle, and the Ayalon Institute on Kibbutzim Hill — the clandestine ammunition factory in operation from 1945-1948.

olive press at Beit Guvrin

olive press at Beit Guvrin

more Ramle produce

Ramle produce

The biggest pomegranates I've ever seen, Ramle Shuk

the biggest pomegranates I've ever seen, Ramle Shuk

In between our sightseeing trips, Sarah and I shared cup after cup of herb-infused tea. While I do make nana (mint) tea back at home, Sarah picks herbs from her front yard and I loved adding white sage and lemongrass to a steaming cup of tea. Between the two of us, we picked her yard dry, leaving only the hanging knotted rope from which her sons swing in front of the house door.

We cooked together, I taking the lead on pancakes for dinner one evening and herb and arugula salad. Taking Sarah’s lead, after washing the arugula, I threw the water onto the yard — not atypical for Israel where there is a currently a drought (of course, I was not complaining about the warm sunny weather!). Sarah made pizza (including dough from scratch), arugula pesto, chicken soup, some braised meat that I missed out on trying. Most meals were accompanied by her home cured olives.

On my last day, we stopped by a grocery store and I bought some fresh pita, still warm, for my long airplane ride home.

Back in my apartment, I froze the remaining pitot to savor some of the flavors of my trip for a little bit longer. But, recalling Sarah’s comment a few days earlier while preparing pizza that the dough was a simple recipe and could be used for pita, I was inspired to make my own pita. I have made it twice since I returned and it is infinitely better than anything you can buy here.


Adapted from Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food and Joan Nathan’s The Food of Israel Today.

These pitot are the closest I have found to the ones you get in Israel, fluffy and perfect with hummus, for mopping up leftover salad dressing, or filled with chocolate spread. The trick to forming the pockets is baking in a very hot oven on a baking stone (or, if my case, on hot cookie sheets) and refraining from opening the oven during baking.

Makes 8-10 pitot.

– 2 1/4 t yeast
– 1 1/2 C warm water
– 1 T sugar
– 4 C flour (I used all-purpose)
– 1-2 T olive oil
– 1 t salt

Make the dough. Dissolve yeast in 1 C of the warm water with sugar. Allow to bubble up (takes ~ 10 minutes). Add to flour, olive oil, and salt in bowl of mixer. Knead with dough hook for 10 minutes. Add additional water, tablespoon by tablespoon, until dough forms a slightly sticky ball.

First rising. Pour a little olive oil into a large bowl. Roll the ball of dough in the oil until coated. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let dough rise until doubled (1.5 – 2 hours). I punch the dough down a few times during the rising.

Shape bread. Most recipes call for you to split the dough into 8-10 portions to roll out individually. But I prefer to easier method of rolling out all the dough and using a bowl to cut out 5-6 inch rounds. You can bake the scraps or re-roll them (this time I rolled the scraps into 3 individual pitot with not-so-round results).

Second rising and preheat oven. Allow the pitot to rise a second time for ~10 minutes. I do this on top of the oven as it preheats to 500º F. Heat cookie trays in the oven while preheating.

Bake. Pull a hot cookie tray out of the oven and quickly transfer half of the pitot onto it and return to the oven. Bake until all pitot have puffed to form pockets, 3-6 minutes. Repeat with remaining pitot.

Store. Pitot go stale pretty quickly, so the best way to store them is in in a bag in the freezer. You can reheat them for 20 seconds in the microwave after spritzing with a little water.

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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


– 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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