Tag Archives: Bread

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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Five-spice carrot bread

I know it’s cool to hate on pumpkin spice these days. Honestly, whatever. It’s a classic for a reason. I’m not mad at pumpkin spice. But if you are, I can suggest a spunkier substitute. Enter: Chinese five-spice.

I’ve fallen hard this year for Chinese five-spice in baked goods and holiday sweets. The exact ingredients vary, but most blends I’ve seen include cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise, and either black pepper or Sichuan pepper. (Some versions include ginger instead of pepper, so look for those if pepper in your baked goods feels like a stretch.) It’s just close enough to the familiar American sweet-and-spicy thing to be comforting. But it’s also a little funky and unexpected, with a quiet kick of heat and licorice. In my experience, people won’t put their finger on the difference right away–they’ll assume it’s pumpkin spice with a mystery twist.

Lately our crisper drawer has been overrun with carrots–I keep forgetting we have them and buying more. So I’ve been making batches of carrot bread with a healthy dose of five-spice. This is a riff on my go-to zucchini bread recipe, and it works really nicely in a variety of guises–one big loaf, several mini-loaves, even muffins. Because carrots aren’t as watery as zucchini, I usually find myself adding a bit of milk or water to thin out the batter. Other than that, this is a pretty basic quickbread, but the five-spice makes it pop.

This bread is terrific baked just as-is, but for a special flourish, get yourself some raw sugar (also known as turbinado sugar, or demerara over in Europe) and sprinkle it over the top. I don’t know why, but it impresses people like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve had folks assume that this carrot bread came from a bakery, just because of the scattering of sugar crystals on top. It also adds a lovely crunch and a bit of extra sweetness. Highly recommend.

five-spice-carrot-bread

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Olive oil zucchini bread

I used to not “get” zucchini bread. Out of all the baked goods in this world, why would you choose zucchini bread? It’s a vegetable dessert. It’s a sugary-sweet cake with something green snuck in. It’s what you resort to when you’ve got bushels of zucchini to use up and you’re sick of zucchini. I wasn’t into it.

Of course, then I found myself with zucchini to use up, and I was sick of zucchini. So I decided to cry uncle and do some baking. And it occurred to me that, after all, zucchini bread is just a hop, skip and a jump from carrot cake, which I adore. Carrot cake isn’t really about the carrots; they’re there for texture and moisture, maybe a bit of color, but not so much for their intrinsic carrot-ness. But the best carrot cakes, in my opinion, are unmistakable for what they are; they’re not spice cakes, or raisin-and-nut loaves. You wouldn’t think of removing the carrots, or replacing them with something else. They’re essential to the cake itself. So why not think of zucchini bread the same way?

I tinkered with a pretty standard recipe I found online, and came up with something that–to my surprise–I liked quite a lot. It’s a zucchini bread that almost walks the line between sweet and savory. It’s definitely a cake, but with half the sugar, a bit of whole wheat flour, and a perk of olive oil. The zucchini flavor is clear–not pronounced, just a hint of grassiness in the background. A few of us ate half the loaf for dessert after a light Sunday lunch, and it was perfect; the rest got bundled along for breakfast on the go the next morning, and it was great for that too.

One note: even though I’m calling this an “olive oil” bread, I actually use 1 part extra virgin olive oil to 2 parts canola oil. I’m not crazy about using all extra virgin olive oil in baked goods like this, since I think the flavor overwhelms. But I do like a bit more oomph than you’d get with just regular olive oil, and this ratio does it for me. Feel free to adjust the proportion of olive to canola oil as you like–you’ll need 3/4 cup oil in total.

zucchini bread 1

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Simple braided bread

I learned to knead from my mother. I remember her beckoning me over one day and showing me how she worked a mass of bread dough back and forth across the counter. She put my hands on the dough, explained her method: push the dough forward with the heel of one hand, pull it back with the other hand. Push right, pull left. Push right, pull left. I practiced alongside her, pushing and pulling the dough, until the movement worked its way into my muscles and became a reflex.

It’s a funny memory, because when I was first teaching myself to cook, I always imitated my father first. He’s an extravagantly creative cook, the kind of cook who barely ever glances at a recipe. He’s great at making kitchen-sink stews, pulling out the entire contents of the crisper drawer and the spice cupboard and having his way with all of it. I’m my father’s daughter in so many ways, and fundamentally my cooking temperament matches his. I have limited patience for recipes and rules, and an overwhelming tendency to tinker and embellish. For a long time I stuck stubbornly to that, insisting that it was the way I was made.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my mother’s way of cooking has value for me too. She’s more deliberate in the kitchen, more of a planner. She has a drawer of recipes that she consults regularly, and keeps a stable of favorites in heavy rotation. Where my dad is creative, she’s curious; she’ll seek out an existing recipe to learn the techniques, then adapt it to what she likes and has on hand. She also bakes, which my father doesn’t really do, because the precision and deliberateness required come more easily to her. Slowing down like this isn’t natural for me, but I think it’s good. I’ve expanded my repertoire of dishes, adding things that require a bit more forethought and deliberateness than a kitchen-sink stew. I’ve realized that repeating recipes, and learning a few standbys to make repeatedly without thinking, are things to celebrate rather than hang my head over. Particularly as a blogger, paying attention to the way my mother uses recipes has helped me improve my own.

Over the years, I’ve learned on my own what a good bread dough feels like–soft, supple, almost fleshy–and how to know when it’s risen enough. But every loaf I’ve baked comes back to that push right, pull left that Mom taught me years ago. Knowing how to knead has grounded me, in a way. So when I went over to my parents’ house the other week to bake with my mother and sister, there was no question I was going to make bread. This was a gorgeous, airy loaf, with a thin crackling crust and a delicately spongy interior–perfect for sopping up soup. I kneaded the dough while Mom watched, and then she helped me braid the dough and sprinkle it with seeds. We bickered over how long to let it rest–it turns out she was right. After all these years, I’m still learning.

braided seed bread

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Monkey bread with dill butter

Monkey bread. Monkey bread. I dare you to say it and not giggle.

I didn’t even know this wonderful food existed until recently. Our friend Eric brought a loaf to a potluck party, and it was an enormous hit. The bread itself was a humble and unassuming thing: bite-sized balls of yeasted dough, nestled together in a loaf and baked. It was perfect stand-around-and-chat food, made for idly pulling apart with one hand while holding a glass of wine with the other. Even on a table crowded with homemade treats, that monkey bread was a clear winner–it disappeared in record time. And I was smitten.

I’ve since seen recipes for monkey bread all over the internet, in a dizzying variety of forms and flavors. The most common version seems to be a sweet breakfast bread, where the dough is soaked in syrup or caramel and the bread itself is baked in a bundt pan and inverted onto a plate. But the monkey bread I fell in love with was savory, as is the recipe that intrigued me the most in my internet ramblings. This is a richer, more sophisticated version of Eric’s simple monkey bread, made from scratch with a springy egg dough, fresh dill, and a whole lot of melted butter.

This is the quickest and simplest yeast bread I’ve ever made. From start to finish, the whole process took just over two hours–and that was on the coldest day of the year, so that the dough took twice as long to rise as it usually should. The dough requires very little kneading, rises for only a brief period of time, and bakes surprisingly quickly. The messiest–and yet most satisfying–step involves dunking the individual balls of dough in dill-spiked melted butter, then layering them in a loaf pan. By the end of the process, my hands were slicked with butter and fragrant with dill, which was almost as fun as eating the finished bread itself.

Then all it takes is a sprinkle of flaky salt and a quick trip into the oven, and you’ve got fresh, buttery bread that can be eaten without a knife. For a sit-down dinner or a stand-up party, this is a treat worth making.

monkey bread dill

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Whole wheat banana bread

My office shares a small kitchen with the other offices on our floor. It’s a tiny but magical place, where drinks and snacks and sandwich fixings are free, plentiful, and replenished every week. There are always several different kinds of fresh fruit, including a basket of bananas. Recently, I started noticing something: even if there are old spotty bananas left on Friday afternoon, the basket is always filled with flawless yellow bananas come Monday morning. So where do the Friday bananas go?

In the compost bin, that’s where. Every week, the ugly but still perfectly edible bananas are thrown out to make way for the pretty new ones. I found this out myself on a recent Monday, when the admin who normally stocks the kitchen was a little late making the rounds. I went into the kitchen to turn on the electric kettle, and there was a bunch of brown bananas in the basket. I came back in two minutes later for my tea, and they were in the bin.

Well, no more. I am the banana rescuer. Whenever there are leftover bananas on Friday, I’ve started bundling them up and taking them home with me. Some of them get eaten as-is, but the majority get tossed in the freezer, peel and all, for a day when I feel like making banana bread.

There are approximately 2.6 bazillion banana bread recipes in the universe. I’m not pretending to break new ground here. But I have learned, from hard experience, that there are two things that make for really good banana bread: use the squishiest, ripest bananas you can find, and a lot of them. When I bring my already-splotchy bananas home from the office, I’ll leave them in a paper bag over the weekend, until their peels are almost completely brown, before freezing them. My friend Shaw swears that the best banana bread he ever made was with a bunch of forgotten bananas that were so ripe, their skins turned black and they started to ferment. Shaw also doubles the amount of banana in any banana bread recipe; I don’t go quite to his extreme, but I’ve found that using 5 bananas in a recipe that calls for 4 only makes it better.

The benefit of using so many ripe bananas is that you can then dial way back on the added sugar. Over the past couple years, I’ve found myself wanting less and less sweetness in my baked goods, and using pungently sugary bananas is a great way to compensate. To use up my most recent banana windfall, I made two banana loaves: a whole wheat loaf sweetened with just a touch of maple syrup, and a chocolate loaf fortified with cocoa and sweetened with brown sugar. I was lazy about mixing, so that the breads came out with large yellow pockets of banana throughout. I didn’t have a problem with this, but if you do, just mash your bananas into oblivion.

banana bread - maple and chocolate

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Brown soda bread

I’m not a big bread baker. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy much. But last weekend I tried my hand at Irish soda bread, and now I’m on my second loaf in seven days. This is serious business.

I love a good whole-wheat loaf, and this one might be my favorite yet. It’s dense and chewy, with just enough white flour to give it a soft fluffy crumb.The sturdy crust growls oh-so-satisfyingly under a bread knife, revealing a plush, almost cakelike interior. The flavor is deep and gruff and wheaty, shot through with flax and oats and the licorice tang of whole caraway seeds. It really makes anything you’re eating with it feel like a good square meal. And since it’s a quickbread, there’s no kneading or rising involved–the dough comes together in minutes, and goes from mixing bowl to cutting board in under an hour.

There are two options for baking this bread: in a loaf pan, or rounded on a baking sheet. I’ve tried them both; the spongy middle turns out identical, but the crust is astonishingly different. The loaf pan produces a lighter bread, with a crackly-crisp crust on the top only. This would be a terrific breakfast bread, ideal for slathering with butter and jam. The round loaf, meanwhile, is crusty all around: the top is jagged and crunchy, and the bottom is solid like an artisan loaf. I’ve never had a crust this solid and satisfying on a whole wheat bread before. As an accompaniment to a thick winter stew or a hearty vegetable soup, I’m not sure it can be beat.

This bread is at its absolute best warm from the oven. As it cools, it loses a lot of its belly-warming charm. Once that happens, the only fix is the toaster oven–but it’s a good one. Toasting this bread restores some of that wonderful all-over crispness, and heightens the nuttiness and sweetness of the bread itself. A toasted slice of this bread is almost as satisfying as an oven-fresh one, with a thin shaggy crunch giving way to fluffy insides. My personal favorite M.O.? Freeze leftover slices–no more than an inch thick, please–and toast them straight from the freezer.

Oh, and though I’m not a beer drinker, I have it on good authority that this bread is The Thing to have with a glass of Irish stout. If you try it, please report back.

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