Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Golden Fruited Challah

Welcome to 2013! I'm already liking this year. It's going to be a sweet one.

I'm a big believer in starting the year out as you mean to go on. That means that Alexis and I spend New Year's Eve together eating something delicious and enjoying each other's company--oh, and celebrating our anniversary. We're in our fourth year together, if you can believe it. This year, it was nouveau pub grub at The Bristol Yard and lots of making eyes at each other over glasses of champagne. Exactly right.

Today, after a good long lie-about, I baked something rich and bitter-sweet to herald a year of sweetness, prosperity, and the grace to weather the inevitable bumpy patches that are sure to come my way. The Italians believe in serving lentils on New Year's Eve, their coin shape symbolizing good fortune to come. Southerners cook up black-eyed peas for the same reason. I make challah. Golden egg yolks and honey bake together into a sunny dough studded with the squash of sweet sultana raisins--a version of challah that often shows up for the Jewish New Year--with the added bitter-sweetness of candied orange peel. It's like panettone, Jewish-style. A good slather of salted butter--and a little time in the toaster--turns a slice into salty-bitter-sweet-crunchy-soft-rich perfection.

One of those bitter-sweet bumpy patches gave rise to this recipe in the first place. I had big plans to make my own panettone this Christmas. I'm obsessed with it in a way that makes my Italian friends, who are so tired of being gifted endless loaves of panettone during the holidays, laugh. I ate it for the first time while we were on holiday in France this summer, and fell for it hard. It helped that we ate it spread with salted Breton butter and washed down with tiny cups of espresso, but as a long-time devotee of hot cross buns and fruitcake and anything else combining bread and fruit, I was a goner. I also couldn't resist the challenge of a recipe that required me to first spend a week making my own sourdough starter, then knead up a bread dough that had to rise for 12 hours and bake in special paper liners. I'm a sucker for the hardest recipe in the book.

I'm sure you can guess what's coming. My grand panettone plan failed miserably. I killed my starter and couldn't find the paper liners anywhere in Toronto (note to self: order online now for next year), so there was no homemade bread for me on Christmas morning. It was a sad moment. Still, I was craving the fruity richness of an eggy holiday bread, so something had to be done. And when it turned out that the brown-butter pecan cake I made for my mom's birthday party required five egg whites, and I remembered that my favourite challah recipe requires five egg yolks, I had my solution. Challah + raisins + orange peel = panettone for cheaters.

This challah recipe, adapted from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, is perfect as a herald of good things to come this year: it's beyond easy and quite beautiful. Here's to a year of many more simple, delicious, easy-on-the-eyes recipes to come. It's going to be a happy new year.

Golden Fruited Challah

There are two secrets that take challah from good to great--using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature so that it doesn't get over-baked, and brushing it with two coats of egg wash. I baked my loaves in a standard bread pans, but a braid--of as many strands as you can wrangle--would make this bread even lovelier. If you own the Reinhart book, his braiding tutorial is great, and Deb's instructions for a six-strand braid don't scramble your brains like most. This recipe doubles easily (and yes, a double batch will fit in your stand mixer all at once, or at least it does in mine). And of course can be made without fruit--I know some people have very strong opinions about dried fruit in bread--or with an entirely different assortment. I think finely chopped dried apricots and slivered almonds will be going into the next batch, along with a little splash of almond extract, and if I'm feeling crazy one day, some dried cherries and mini-chocolate chips might have to happen too. Oh, and if you wanted to get crazy, you could totally soak the raisins for this recipe in some brandy before kneading them into the dough. Just add a little more flour if you do--three tablespoons should do it.

Makes two standard loaves (baked in loaf pans) or one large free-form braid. 

1 1/4 cups/260 grams lukewarm water (about 95 degrees)
3/4 tablespoon/7 grams instant yeast
4-5 egg yolks or 85 grams depending on the weight
2 1/2 tablespoons/35 grams vegetable oil
3 tablespoons/42 grams sugar or 2 1/2 tablespoons/52 grams honey or agave nectar
1/2 tablespoon/10 grams vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups/482 grams unbleached bread flour (or all-purpose flour, in Canada)
2 teaspoons/10 grams kosher salt
1/3 cup sultana raisins
1/3 cup finely-chopped candied orange peel
1 egg for egg wash
2 tablespoons water for egg wash

Combine the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a 5-quart mixer and whisk together to dissolve. Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla and whisk together to break up. Add the flour and salt. Using the paddle attachment, mix the dough for 2 minutes on the lowest speed. The dough will look shaggy and sticky.  Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium low for 4 minutes. The dough will have smoothed out, and it will clean the sides of the bowl and climb the hook as it kneads.

On a clean counter-top, sprinkle half of the raisins and orange peel, as well as some flour. Use wet or floured hands to transfer the dough to the floured and fruited surface, and sprinkle the top lightly with flour and with the other half of the fruit. Knead by hand for a couple of minutes until the dough is soft and supple and the fruit is evenly incorporated. The dough should be tacky (like a Post-It note) but not sticky; add more flour, little by little, if necessary.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (or use a lidded bowl, like I do) and immediately place in the refrigerator. The dough should rest at least overnight and can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days. The flavour improves as it sits, so if you can leave it for more than a day, do.

On baking day, remove the dough from the fridge approximately 2 hours before you plan to bake. Transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of braids you want to use or shape into loaves.

See the headnote for advice on braiding; if you're making a braided loaf, place it on a sheet pan lined with Silpat or parchment paper. If you're making standard loaves, place the dough into two lightly-oiled bread pans. 

Make the egg wash and brush each loaf with the wash. Reserve the rest of the wash in the fridge, and let the loaves rise uncovered for about an hour. They will not have risen much at this point. Brush the loaves again with the egg wash. Let the loaves rise for another hour until they increase to about 1 ½ times their size.

15 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F (or 300 degrees for convection). Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temperature is around 190 degrees F in the center. Do not over bake. I use a meat thermometer (that I use just for baking) to keep an eye on the internal temperature and I

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