As some of you know, I have been experimenting a lot with baking my own bread. This experimentation has been going on for a while now, and I don’t think it is going to stop any time soon. Bread is one of those things that is stupendously simple in concept and yet has so much variation that you will never, ever get bored with it.
This week, I made challah. Challah, or egg bread, has been a favourite of mine since childhood. I love the soft yellow interior. I love the crisp dark brown crust. I even love the dusting of sesame seeds on top. I can remember walking or biking to the little market near our house to buy fresh challah, a brick of sharp cheddar cheese, and thin sliced Black Forest Ham to make sandwiches for lunch. Ahh, challah!
When you first start baking bread and reading about baking bread, you very quickly discover that there are as many secrets to making the perfect loaf as there are bakers, and fully half of them contradict each other. But over the past couple of years, I have discovered one particular secret to baking bread by hand that has created a radical shift in my thinking about all sorts of happenings in the kitchen and in fact far beyond the walls of the kitchen as well.
I avoid plastic when I am baking bread. In truth, I am trying to eliminate plastic from all areas of our lives, but I haven’t completely managed yet. A few years ago, I was having a lot of trouble baking bread. The silly loaf just would not rise, not even after hours of sitting there. I checked my yeast by sprinkling some in a glass of warm water mixed with sugar and it frothed just fine, so I knew it wasn’t the yeast. But the loaf wouldn’t rise. Neither would a fresh loaf. Nor a third.
For some reason, I decided to test the yeast again. I grabbed the nearest measuring cup and filled it with a little warm water and sugar, sprinkled it with yeast, and set it aside. As soon as I had done it, I felt ridiculous. The yeast had frothed just fine not three hours earlier in a glass on the counter. A glass that was still sitting beside the sink, with foamy yeast in the bottom. What was I expecting? They say the definition of stupidity is when you perform the exact same actions and expect to get a different result. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if the bread wasn’t rising, it had to be something wrong with the yeast.
So, stupidity being the order of the day apparently, I sat and waited for that yeast to prove me wrong by forming a lovely little froth.
And it didn’t.
I looked over to the sink and the glass of frothy yeast, then back to the plastic measuring cup in front of me with yeast that was as dead as a doornail.
The plastic measuring cup. Just like the plastic mixing bowl I was trying to mix bread in.
At that point, the scientist in me came roaring to the fore and I set about making not one but two identical loaves of bread, one using plastic tools, the other using glass measuring cups, a ceramic bowl, and a wooden spoon. I think you can guess what happened.
I measured out water and sugar and sprinkled in yeast. The yeast in the plastic cup didn’t froth.
I mixed up dough straight in the plastic bowl, and another batch in a ceramic bowl. The one in the ceramic bowl rose fast and furiously, forming a lovely huge bump of dough in less than an hour. The one in the plastic bowl lie there, inert, not moving even an inch.
The plastic had killed my bread.
Whatever chemical soup was leaching out of the cold plastic bread into the food inside of it was powerful enough to disrupt the natural fermentation process of yeast — and I think disrupt is perhaps too mild a word. It completely killed it. When I think about the delicate chemical and hormonal balance that is the human body, especially that of young children, the thought of a seemingly inert bowl having the power to completely disrupt such a natural and simple process as fermenting yeast… scared me badly. That very day, I pulled all the plastic bowls and spoons and cups and plates out of my kitchen and threw them in a box, then began the slow process of finding wood or steel or glass replacements for all of them. Every single one.
The rest of the family was a bit outraged at this, for some of their favourite items were in that box, but I couldn’t get the picture of that dead yeast out of my mind and so I stuck firm.
And bit by bit, I have been eliminating plastic from our lives. I still haven’t found a good substitute for certain things, like cheese that comes wrapped in plastic, or a good way to store bread for more than a day without it going stale, but I am trying.
Have you eliminated plastic from your kitchen? What have you replaced it with? What do you use instead of plastic wrap and zipper bags? Where do you find replacements for those food items that habitually come wrapped in plastic? I’d love to hear what you do in your home.
In the meantime, here’s the recipe for that yummy, yummy challah bread. While you enjoy reading it, I think I’m going to go toast a slice or two and make ham sandwiches for lunch. Yum!
A recipe for challah
This recipe makes the most delicious challah, slightly sweet and with a lovely texture.
2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp yeast
Dissolve the sugar in the warm water in a large glass, ceramic, or wooden bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast. Leave it for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is frothy. If you prefer, you can substitute honey for the sugar.
3 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup honey (I prefer creamed honey, but liquid works just as well)
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten (I’ve been known to simply use 4 eggs and it works just fine)
1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil (note: butter is not kosher, so if kosher is a concern, use oil)
1 tsp salt
topping: 1 egg plus 1 tbsp sesame seeds
Once the yeast mixture is frothy, stir in 3 cups of the flour a little bit at a time with a wooden spoon until the flour is mostly moistened. Stir in the honey, eggs, and butter or oil. Stir until it is well blended and there are no dry patches in the dough, then let it sit for a few minutes. The dough will relax slightly as the gluten forms, and this is what you are wanting – a nice, soft, relaxed bit of dough. Once the dough has relaxed a bit, work in the salt, and the raisins if you are using them.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, or throw it into your Kitchen Aid stand mixer and knead with the dough hook for 3-4 minutes. You want the bread to be smooth and elastic so that when you take a small piece in your hand and stretch it, it forms a window. Put it in a lightly greased bowl, turning it to grease it all over. Cover with a damp tea towel and let it rise until it is doubled in size – about 90 minutes.
Punch down the dough and split it into three ropes. Pinch the ropes together at one end and then braid them. Tuck the ends under and make sure they are solidly pinched so they stay put. Sprinkle some corn meal on a pizza stone or cookie sheet and lay the braided dough on it. Let it rest for about an hour.
Beat 1 egg with a little bit of water, about 1 tsp. Brush the egg mixture over the loaf and then sprinkle it with sesame seeds. Bake at 375 for 35 to 40 minutes. The loaf will be a dark golden brown on top and sound hollow when you tap on the bottom.