Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So This is Challah . . .

When I first decided to make challah, I thought of it simply as a beautifully braided, golden loaf of bread. To me, it was a baking challenge that I wanted to conquer--just one among many other such baking challenges. Of course, not being Jewish (yeah, I confess--I'm Presbyterian), and knowing almost nothing about the mystery and symbolism of this very special bread, I approached it as I tend to approach all recipes. That is, like a little research project. First, I hunt for and examine quite a variety of formulas. Then I narrow it down to what I feel are the best choices, based on certain general criteria and, finally, I select the recipe that I'll actually use. From there I pick the day I'll do the baking, and make sure I have all the needed supplies.

What I don't typically do, however, is give a great deal of thought to the history and cultural weight that may accompany whatever it is I'm planning to prepare. Challah, though, gave me food for thought--no pun intended. You see, my older son, Charlie, happened to comment to a close friend of his, who happens to be Jewish, that I might try making challah. Interestingly, according to Charlie, this fellow--who probably knows that I bake all the time--responded with mystification and essentially remarked, "Why would she want to do that?" That's pretty much all I know about his response, but it set me thinking--thinking and wondering.

So I did a bit of extra research, because I wanted to know just what I was dealing with, and I'm glad I did. I think I understand, now, the origin of and the sentiment behind the question posed by my son's friend. I understand that this bread's history is deep, rich, and laden with symbolism. For an awful lot of people, it's not just something to eat. Not just another egg-bread recipe. It's an important part of a complete way of life. I understand that.

This is special bread, and I loved making it.

About the recipe . . .

In scouting out a recipe, there were zillions of possibilities to choose from, but in the end I figured I'd better pick something rock-solid reliable, so I opted for the challah in the 2009 book, Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day. I don't believe that this is the kind of cookbook that lets people down; I recommend it.

I chose to use honey in these loaves, versus sugar or agave nectar, and I slightly reduced the amount of vanilla in the recipe. (I think this was, in fact, the only challah recipe I saw that includes so much vanilla, let alone any vanilla at all.) The recipe also calls for no fewer than 8 to 10 egg yolks. That's a lot of eggs, but they're a big part of what characterizes this bread to begin with so they're well worth it, and they lend a lovely color to both the exterior and interior.

This challah smells glorious while it's baking, and I loved how shiny and burnished the crust looked when it came out of the oven. I kept going back into the kitchen to gaze at it as it cooled on the counter. For a first-timer with challah, I think these loaves turned out pretty well.

I reworded the instructions here and there for brevity, and within them I focused on making this with a mixer. Also, I adjusted the ingredient list to reflect the specific preferences that I chose, in cases where Reinhart offered ingredient choices. Please note, this is a recipe that requires the dough be made one day, and chilled at least overnight. The slow rise during the long chilling period brings out the best flavor.

This stuff makes fantastic toast. Fantastic.


This makes 2 large loaves.

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

2 and 1/4 cups of lukewarm water (about 95 degrees)
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. instant yeast
8 to 10 egg yolks (6 oz. total)
5 Tbsp. vegetable oil (I used canola)
4 and 1/2 Tbsp. honey (I used clover honey)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
7 and 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour (I used King Arthur)
4 tsp. coarse kosher salt
1 whole egg, mixed with 2 Tbsp. water, for egg wash

Combine the water and yeast in a mixing bowl and stir with a whisk to dissolve. Into this, add the yolks, oil, honey, and vanilla. Whisk lightly to break up the yolks, then add in the flour and salt. Using your mixer, with the paddle attachment, mix on the lowest speed for 2 minutes. The dough will be coarse and, per Reinhart, "shaggy" (Mine didn't look shaggy exactly, but it did look sort of rough.) Rest the dough for 5 minutes in the bowl.

Remove the paddle attachment and put the dough hook on your mixer. Mix on medium-low speed (my mixer will only do bread dough on low speed!) for 4 minutes.

Using a bowl scraper, plop the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, then dust the top of the dough with flour.

Lightly knead the dough with your hands for 1 to 2 minutes, adding flour as needed to keep it from sticking. The dough should be soft, supple, and tacky but not sticky (mine felt exactly like this, lo and behold!).

Form the dough into a ball, put it into a clean lightly-oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Immediately refrigerate the dough, overnight, or for up to 4 days. (I just did the overnight thing.) It will double in size in the fridge. (Mine doubled alright, and was pressing against the top of the plastic when I went to take it out the next day.)

On the day you're ready to bake the bread:

Take the dough out of the fridge about 2 hours before you plan to bake.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Gently dump the dough out on a lightly floured work surface and, using a bench scraper or a sharp knife, cut it into however many pieces you will need. If you're making two simple 3-strand braided loaves, cut the dough into 2 big chunks, then cut each of those big chunks into 3 small equal-sized chunks.

Roll each piece into a cigar or torpedo shape. After doing this with each piece, go back to the first piece and roll it out further into a long rope that's 10" to 14" long. Do this with all of the pieces, and try to make them even in length.

To braid each loaf :

(There seem to be a few philosophies on how to do this; the method below is just the way I chose to do it--simple as can be, no fuss, no muss. There are countless examples available online that can show you how to do this a variety of ways, if you're interested.)

Lay three strands of dough side by side and pinch the dough strands together at the top. Braid the strands just as you would braid someone's hair, starting at the top and going down. Braid snugly but without stretching the strands too much. Pinch the ends together at the other end of the loaf and tuck the pinched edge under the loaf. Transfer each braided loaf to one of the parchment-lined baking sheets.

The photo just below is a simple 3-strand braid. The one below that, is a simple 3-strand braid that's been topped by a smaller 3-strand braid! Do it however you like!
Brush the entire surface of each loaf with the egg wash.

Let the egg-washed loaves rise at room temperature for about an hour; they will not rise very much. About halfway through the rising time, when the first coat of egg wash has mostly dried, gently brush on a second coat, being careful not to press on the dough. If you like, you can sprinkle on poppy or sesame seeds at this point (I left my plain, as you can see).

About 15 minutes before baking, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pans. If the loaves are getting too dark too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of foil over them. Bake for another 15 minutes or so. (Mine were done quickly, since my oven can be unpredictably hot; Reinhart suggests leaving the bread in for up to 30 minutes, but if I'd done that mine would have been quite burned.) When they're done, the loaves will sound hollow when thumped and they will have reached an internal temperature of 190 degrees. (I used the thermometer to make sure mine were done; rich breads like this can look like they're done on the outside way before they're done on the inside.)

Cool the loaves on wire racks for about an hour before slicing.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One Little Thing: Lemon Yogurt Mini-Bundt Cakes . . . with Limoncello Glaze

What is it about having a miniature cake to call your own?

Nothing so common as a cupcake, mind you, but an accurate-to-scale mini version of a bigger cake. Something about being in possession of such a diminutive gateau seems to confirm what you, hopefully, already knew about yourself. If that dinky cake could speak it would surely remark, "Hey, you must be extraordinary because you merit your very own tiny cake. You are worthy."

It's a positive development that we Americans, somewhere along the way, reached a stage of gustatory evolution wherein we began to appreciate carefully constructed and painstakingly detailed individual dessert items, versus huge layer cakes predictably blanketed in sugary American buttercream. Cakes that are designed to serve a dozen or more people are good, oh sure, and they have their place. But let's face it, they exist to feed the masses. They don't care who you are, particularly.

The mission of a super-sized cake doesn't involve catering to the different tastes of each person in a crowd. On the contrary, everyone gets the same thing. A huge cake lives to serve by being sliced up equally. Take it or leave it. One size fits all. You don't like frosting? Gosh, that's tough. Scrape it off with a plastic fork and don't forget to dump your soggy paper plate in the trash on your way out. Not a pretty scenario.

So when the craving for a sweet possesses you, don't you find it reassuring to have the option of selecting one single-serving dessert--modestly portioned, artfully prepared, and seemingly unique? Of course you do. After all, sometimes all you want is one little thing.

It's all about choice . . .

Which brings me to today's lemon yogurt mini-bundt cakes. Neither complex nor time consuming to make, these baby bundts are delightfully presentable. Ultra moist and very tender, this cake falls on the texture spectrum somewhere between a butter cake and a soft pound cake. You can make these as 12 mini-bundts, or 24 cupcakes. (If you're brave, you can try it as one large bundt, too, but doing that apparently makes this recipe less predictable and more prone to producing a dense/fallen cake, just fyi). You can choose to make the tangy-sweet, limoncello glaze thin enough so that most of it demurely soaks in (as I did), or mix it thicker and slather it on as a flashy embellishment. You're the driver.

See? It's all about choice. I love having choices. I know you do, too.

About the recipes . . .

I adapted the cake and glaze recipes from Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, a volume that's on own my short list of highly admirable cookbooks.

What did I alter? Well, instead of using buttermilk in the cake (the book's recipe is called "Lemon Buttermilk Cake") I substituted Greek style plain yogurt, along with a few tablespoons of milk to smooth it out.

And, there's no limoncello in the CIA formula, but I suspected that it would tag along perfectly with the existing flavors, so I added a smidgen into the cake batter in place of some of the lemon juice, and also used it with lemon juice in the glaze. (A popular Italian liqueur, it's such tasty stuff. If you've never tried it, you might want to get some, but if you prefer not to use it you can always omit it from the recipe entirely and go with all lemon juice. The cakes will still be luscious.) I also reworded, and slightly revised, the instructions.

Lemon Yogurt Mini-Bundt Cakes with Limoncello Glaze

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Liberally coat with baking spray, or thoroughly grease and flour,  pans for 12 mini-bundts, or 24 cupcakes. 

2 and 2/3 cups All-Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
1 and 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
4 eggs, large
1 cup and 1 Tbsp. plain Greek style yogurt
3 Tbsp. milk (I used 2 percent)
5 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 to 1 cup confectioners' sugar
4 Tbsp. limoncello (lemon flavored liqueur)

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another small bowl, stir together the yogurt and the milk just until smooth.

In a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, and lemon zest for about 5 minutes, until smooth and light. Stop to scrape the bowl periodically.

Add in the eggs one a time, still at medium speed, scraping down the bowl between each addition. Mix well after each egg.
On low speed, add in the flour mixture alternately with the yogurt in three additions. Mix just until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 2 minutes more, until the entire mixture is smooth and light.
Add in 3 Tbsp. of the lemon juice and 1 Tbsp. of the limoncello. Blend just until evenly mixed, no more than 30 seconds.

Portion the batter evenly into your pan(s); smooth the top of the batter.

Bake until the center of each cake springs back when pressed lightly with a finger, and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. This will be about 15 minutes for mini-bundts or cupcakes (if making minis or cupcakes, don't wait for the exposed part of the cake to look golden brown; golden around the edges is enough).If you've made the cake in mini-bundt pans, let them cool for about 10 minutes before inverting the pans onto a cooling racks to remove the cakes. If you've baked cupcakes, give them no more than about five minutes in their pans before carefully removing to a cooling rack.

To make the glaze, mix the confectioners' sugar, 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice and 3 Tbsp. of limoncello in a small bowl and stir until any lumps are completely gone. If you'd like the glaze thicker, just stir in a bit more confectioners' sugar until it's the texture you prefer.To apply the glaze, place the cooled cake(s) on a cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Using a spoon, drizzle the glaze liberally over each cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Let the icing set for about 15 minutes before moving the cakes.If you like, serve each cake topped with a little unsweetened whipped cream and some lemon zest curls. Yummy.

Update from Jane, January 2013: 

Dear readers, 

I have heard from dozens of bakers who've tried this recipe since I first posted it almost three years ago. About half of them love it and got great results, and about half had cakes that were extremely dense and disappointing. Based on reader feedback, it also seems like this recipe is more predictably successful when made in mini-bundt pans, versus one large bundt pan. So, that's something to consider before giving it a whirl.

In light of the inconsistent results, if you still want to try it in one large bundt pan, I am recommending (especially if you don't bake bundts regularly) that you visit this link before you start the recipe: 
How to Bake the Perfect Bundt Cake (
It contains helpful hints on baking with bundt pans and may help you to achieve success with this formula as one large cake. Nordicware is the original creator of the bundt, and they are the true experts. I trust their advice. 

Thanks very much for visiting and for providing me with honest feedback. It's always appreciated.

Keep on baking!

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, just click on the purple COMMENTS below!)