Monthly Archives: July 2018

Five-fold challah

Fact: challah is one of the greatest breads in the world. Okay, as an American Jew, I may be slightly biased. But even if you didn’t grow up eating challah on Friday nights and holidays, it’s easy to fall in love with this showoff of a loaf. Made from a wet dough enriched with oil, eggs, and honey, it’s golden and shiny on the outside, fluffy and slightly sweet on the inside. It’s made for pulling apart, the seams of the braid acting as a guide. And if it lasts long enough to go stale, it makes the world’s greatest French toast.

Where I live, you can buy decent challah from bakeries and some grocery stores. But homemade challah blows them all away, and this recipe is my current favorite. Rather than kneading by hand and letting the dough rise at room temperature, this version slows things waaaaay dooooown. There’s no kneading at all. Instead, you let the dough sit quietly at room temperature, folding it over on itself every so often. The recipe recommends five folds, spread out over about 2 1/2 hours; I do mine about every 30 minutes, working or puttering or watching TV in between. But this is not the kind of recipe that demands precision and hovering. You could do one fold after 15 minutes, then another after 45. Basically, just keep folding until the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticking to your fingers.

When you’ve folded the dough five times, transfer it to the fridge and let it rise overnight. The next day, braid the chilled dough–I’ve never mastered the spectacular six-strand, so I just do a simple three-strand plait–and let it rest again for 2-3 hours at room temperature.¬†The result of this slow, lazy process is a bread with rich yeasty flavor and a gorgeously pillowy texture. When you pull it apart, the edges fray into delicate filaments. It’s the best challah I’ve ever made, and light years away from what you’ll find in a store.

Challah gets its gorgeous brown lacquer from an egg wash–preferably one with some yolk in it. You could beat a whole egg with a pinch of salt, but I find that makes way more egg wash than I need. Instead, I use my friend Andrea’s trick: stealing a bit of the egg I’m already using for the dough. Just pour off about 1 tbsp of beaten egg into a separate container and refrigerate it alongside the dough. The tiny difference in liquid doesn’t matter in a dough this forgiving, and there’s no need to waste most of an extra egg. Smart, huh?

five fold challah

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Mussels steamed with sour beer

Recently, my husband signed up for the monthly beer club at The Rare Barrel, a local outfit specializing in sour beer. This style of beer is crafted to maximize the acidic tang of wild fermentation–the same process that makes sauerkraut taste sour–while minimizing bitterness. The result is a brew that is light, tangy, and easy to drink. Even I, an avowed beer-hater, like this stuff. So when Sam suggested having a few friends over to help us finish this month’s beer-stash, my thoughts immediately turned to cooking with it. Specifically, mussels.

Of all the ways to cook mussels at home, it’s hard to beat simply steaming them in some flavorful liquid. For most of my mussel-eating life, that meant white wine with lots of garlic. But that’s far from the only way to go. I suspected that the light, acidic qualities of a sour beer would make it an ideal swap for dry white wine when steaming shellfish. And I was right.

Instead of the usual garlic saute, I started by sweating diced leek tops and fennel in garlic-infused oil. I threw in some chile flakes, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf, then added¬†the beer. After steaming the mussels open in their beer-y sauna, I scooped them out of the pot and finished the broth with a few chunks of butter for richness and heft, plus a dollop of mustard for spice. (I left the aromatics in, but you could strain them out of the broth if you prefer, since both leek tops and fennel bulbs can be tough.) Then I poured the enriched broth over the mussels, added a handful of chopped parsley, and set the bowl on the table next to a loaf of spelt bread–sourdough, natch.

Although I used sour beer here, this is really a “mussels steamed with some sort of booze” recipe. If you’re a beer drinker, any good-quality ale will do. If you don’t do beer, try hard cider (preferably on the dry side) or good old white wine. And, honestly, “good-quality” is in the taste buds of the beholder. If you like it enough to drink it, go ahead and cook with it!

sour beer mussels
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Summer squash gratin with tomato-red pepper sauce

Are you looking to use up a giant pile of zucchini or summer squash? Say, four pounds of it? This recipe is just the ticket. It’s a simple yet flavor-packed vegetarian gratin, made up of squash slices layered with tomato-pepper sauce and Parmesan cheese, then topped with oil-slicked breadcrumbs. This is what I think of as summer comfort food: crisp and golden on top, bright and fresh-flavored underneath. Plus there’s cheese.

The real secret sauce of this gratin is…well, the sauce. It is one of those simple-yet-spectacular marvels of summer cooking: tomatoes and red bell peppers, simmered with a splash of water until they’re very soft, then blended with a knob of butter and a handful of fresh basil leaves. (You could use olive oil instead of butter, or a mix of the two.) Somehow, those few ingredients produce a rich orange-red sauce that’s creamy-without-cream and packed with bright flavor.

Of course, the sauce is outrageously delicious in this gratin. Tomato, pepper, squash, and basil is a can’t-fail flavor combination. But once you taste this stuff, you’ll want to make extra next time. It’s fabulous over pasta or as a marinara-like dip, and I can only imagine how great it’d be draped over chicken Parmesan. It also freezes beautifully, so you could double the batch while prepping this gratin and save the leftovers for another day.

tomato pepper sauce

I tweaked this from a Food52 recipe, which calls for roasting the squash before assembling the gratin. I don’t own enough baking sheets to fit four pounds of sliced squash in a single layer, and I didn’t love the idea of shuffling baking sheets in and out of a very hot oven during the height of summer. So I skip the roasting step altogether, and I don’t really miss it. The flavor of the squash is fresher, and the slices stay firmer and more intact. (A lot of folks–myself included–are averse to the mushiness of fully-cooked zucchini, so I slice my squash on the thicker side for a crisp-tender final texture.)

The roasting step does serve one important purpose, however. It drives off excess liquid from the squash, which would otherwise make the gratin soggy. My solution is to salt-purge the squash instead. After slicing the squash, I toss it with a generous dose of kosher salt, then let it drain in a colander until it softens and gives up a shocking amount of liquid. Then I pat the squash dry, and it’s ready to be layered with sauce and blanketed with breadcrumbs.

squash gratin w tomato pepper sauce

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