Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Challah ... Or Else ... and a great bread-making tip.

A few days ago one of my excellent students came to me with a request. "Chef", my student said, "In my family we celebrate Hannukah. I'd really like to make challah bread for this holiday, but I don't know how. Can you teach me?"

No easier asked, gentle student, than done.

Let's start with a recipe. We searched the internet and books for a recipe that looked as though it would work right off, and that my student had the skills to make and do at home. Allrecipes, (a wonderful website for cooks ... so is Epicurious), came through perfectly. We took a look at the recipe and I adjusted it a little to make it more approachable for a beginner. We went over the recipe together and I clarified what techniques were needed, what mis-en-place would be required and what the time structure was. With all this in place, the process began.
The dough was made and risen, then punched down, divided and rolled into long cigars. These were braided three per loaf, and set onto baking sheets on silpats. They were covered correctly for a proof, then topped off with a quick egg-wash and one was top-garnished with sesame seeds. Care was taken to gently tuck the flattened ends under the larger mass of the braid at each end of the loaf, to give a neat appearance.

The ovens were pre-heated and settled and set up for steam (to ensure a delicious crust).

Then, after 45 minutes of proofing, into the ovens, a fast blast of heat and steam and the dough rose up like a great imagination and baked off perfectly!

The results spoke for themselves.

Congratulations, Chef Rebecca! You did it ... and now you can share this at home with your family over Hannukah. Thanks for asking.


Here is a wonderful baking tip I had shared with me by a woman who is a simply fabulous cook. I use it all the time when I make bread and it never fails.

For many years Monarch Park was blessed with wonderful Greek cafeteria Chefs. Koula, Yasmina, Angela and Maria were all from small Greek villages around or part of Sparta. Their traditions included an enormous amount of folk-knowledge about making food and using ingredients. Each of these wonderful women has been a mentor to my students, a wonderful example of excellence and an awfully nice person to work with in the kitchen. Thank you, Chefs!

Yasmina taught me, REALLY taught me, how to proof bread. She taught me that dough, when proofing, was usually trying to get the very best and last out of the yeast. What she taught me was to have my ovens ready and settled, and use steam for most breads. Then she would knock about 10 - 15 minutes off any proofing-time, and bake in a searing, steamy oven. Yasmina taught me that when she did this she was giving the yeast one great chance to show its stuff ... one last gasp, so to speak ... and the steamy heat would get the dough going all at once in a sort of yeasty "Hail Mary" final effort. I tried it on the day she taught me, and I have never looked back. This technique works beautifully on focaccia, ciabatta, challah, baguette, brioche. I can honestly say that I make wonderful bread, in part because of the skill I learnt from Yasmina and the other great Greek chefs we have been fortunate to have.

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