Hello, bread week! We meet again. Just after last week's cake week was actually a bread week. To be honest, I made this about a month ago, because I was fooled by the word "plaited" and my own cultural associations. To me, growing up, a "plaited," or, braided loaf was always called challah and it was for Friday night Shabbat dinner. A braided bread was a Jewish thing, always. So, I made this bread in preparation for my mom's annual Vodka Latke Dinner (where you drink vodka and eat latkes, naturally), thinking how cosmic it was that challah week was the same week of my mom's party.
Turns out you can braid a bread without it being a challah. Oops.
So, why is this bread not a challah in spirit, if it is indeed challah in shape? Challah is a type of enriched bread, meaning it has some sort of fat or sweetness added to it, above any beyond the flour+water+yeast that makes bread a bread. Challah has eggs in it. Brioche is a similar enriched bread, but uses butter, not eggs. Both are delicious and both are often used in French toast. Personally, I prefer challah. It may be nostalgia, but brioche is a bit too greasy for me--the butter makes the bread (dare I say) too rich, whereas the eggs gives a better balance of fat, and an altogether better loaf. And it's kosher so like, there's that.
This dough was frustratingly sticky. Not as bad as the rum babas, but definitely not an "easy" bread. And seeing as it was the second yeast-based dish I made in as many days, I was so over it. Tired of cleaning my countertop, of washing my hands. I wasn't tired of eating bread of course (especially with a pad of salted butter), but just of making it. I would have preferred a chocolate cake. Can I test bake wedding cakes again?
But the smell was intoxicating. There is nothing like unwrapping risen bread and the pleasant scent of yeast waft through the air. After coming back into the kitchen and seeing the dough has risen double its size, wanting to burst out of the container, after unwrapping it and smelling how alive the dough is... it's truly magical. At this point, I'm willing to clean my countertop a thousand times to eat such deliciousness.
And enriched breads (though this one is less enriched than a challah or brioche) are especially pliable and soft. If you've never kneaded and squeezed and handled fresh homemade bread dough, you're missing out. I mean, even if your bread turns out like a dense hockey puck, the very act of playing with the dough is so satisfying--doesn't take much to figure out why they named the child's toy Play-Doh.
At this point, we get to the technical aspect of the bread: the plaiting. Now, growing up, we always made the standard 3-strand challah breads, and that's how I learned to braid. I made a 6-strand challah bread once, many years ago, but I cheated a bit and just made two 3-strand breads (one larger than the other), and stacked them with the smaller on top of the larger. This beast, per Paul Hollywood, is an 8-strand plaited loaf, and he has a very specific way to go about it. Which I had to look out. And diagram.
You first start by dividing your dough into 8 roughly same-sized balls of dough. You can use a scale, but you know what? We're not working in a commercial kitchen and we're making a single loaf. So just eyeball it -- nobody's going to care.
The next part can be tedious if your dough is extremely elastic, which happens if it gets warm enough. If your dough starts to shrink back in on itself while rolling it out, throw it in the fridge for a few minutes, but not for long, or the dough will dry out.
You should be fine though, just roll out eight strands, squeeze them all together at the top, and get to braiding.
The braiding is actually fun, once you get in the flow of it. Basically, number the strands from 1-8 from left to right, and move them over and under each other according to a simple pattern. Each time you move one, they all effectively get renumbered (1-8, left to right), so #1 is always the left-most strand. Just take it slow and steady and you'll be fine.
And the results are pretty breathtaking. It will look like a mess until you have it all together and then you'll step back and go "whoa" and revel in your own amazingness.
The taste was delicious. I mean, it's a slightly enriched bread -- it could be better, it could be worse -- but what you're really going for here is less the taste and value of the bread itself, and more the caramelization you get with all of the braided nubs. That's what makes it so delicious and addictive to eat. Despite a clean slice shown below, my inclination when eating a braided loaf is to just grab at the nubs with my hands and rip the loaf apart little by little. Would I have rather had a challah bread than this bread to eat? Yes. But for a special occasion bread that you can just throw together, half-heartedly knead, and be ready in a couple hours, this is acceptable.
makes one 15" loaf
500 grams (1 pound + 2 ounces) ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 teaspoons ACTIVE DRY YEAST
1 1/2 cups (340 milliliters) (12 fluid ounces) WARM WATER (100F-110F)
2 teaspoons SALT
1 1/2 tablespoons OLIVE OIL
1 large EGG, beaten with a pinch of salt
1. Take 1/2 cup of the WARM WATER and whisk in the ACTIVE DRY YEAST, then leave for 10 minutes to activate -- the mixture should be bubbling and yeasty-smelling
2. Combine the FLOUR, SALT, OLIVE OIL, and yeast/water mixture, and stir to combine
3. Add the remaining warm water and mix until the dough becomes a shaggy dough, then turn out onto a floured surface
4. Knead dough by hand until the dough looks silky and stretches (about 10 miutes)
5. Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl, then turn to coat dough in oil, cover in plastic wrap, and leave to rise until doubled in size (about an hour)
6. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead to knock the dough back
7. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and roll each into a snake of about 16 inches long
8. Lay all the strands out, and pinch one end of all of them together to form a starting point for the braiding
9. Number the strands from 1-8 (left to right) in your head, knowing that every time you move a strand, you will re-number the strands (they are always 1-8 from left to right -- the strand does not retain its number as it moves); braid the strands as follows:
11. Preheat the oven to 400F
12. Brush the loaf with an EGG beaten with a little salt, and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the dough sounds hollow when tapped
Bread week. So we meet again. I love making bread. I love how simple the ingredients are. I love the process. I love the feeling of dough on my hands. And yet, despite this love for the craft that is bread making, I'm nervous every single time. Is my yeast still alive? Is my water too hot? Did too much salt touch the yeast? Did I knead it enough? Did I knead it too much? Did I knead too much flour in? Has it doubled in size? Was there a draft? Is it baked all the way through? Those are all questions I undoubtedly ask myself while making bread. Every. Single. Time.
I was actually pretty excited to try out focaccia though. I absolutely love focaccia, and actually eat it with my lunch quite often. My favorite part of a good Italian restaurant is fresh focaccia dipped in a good olive oil and a deliciously dark balsamic vinegar.
I have to say though that, like cheesecake, after making focaccia, the food is not quite the same. Cheesecake is amazing, but when you actually put the butter, the sugar, the eggs, and the massive amount of cream cheese into the mixer that it takes to make cheesecake, your stomach turns a little knowing all that is about to go into your body. With focaccia, it's olive oil. Sure 1/2 cup isn't that much over time, but then you realize you use olive oil on your counter and hands to knead, in the bowl to keep it from sticking, and then poured on top of the dough at least two other times to give it more flavor. In the end, it's a lot of olive oil. And it goes without saying then, that using a good olive oil is really in the best interest of your bread (and your taste buds).
I do have to say though that this is one of the more fun doughs to work with, particularly because of the olive oil. It is a sticky dough, for sure, which is normally really frustrating, but I have two pieces of advice: 1) embrace the mess, and 2) use olive oil. Normally when you're kneading bread dough, you dust your surface and hands with flour and go to town. With focaccia however, you oil everything up. This is because focaccia is a wet dough, which is what gives it all the giant bubbles that form. The wetter the dough, the more water in the dough. The more water in the dough, the more evaporation that occurs in baking. The more evaporation that occurs, the bigger the bubbles. Basically.
Because the dough is so wet, kneading in the classic sense is hard, so the special focaccia kneading technique actually makes life a lot easier. You just fold it over itself for a few minutes and let it be for its first rise.
And so, here's a lesson: let your bread rise the first time. Like, really rise.. As you can see, I didn't quite wait long enough for my dough to double in size -- it was shy by about 20 minutes. While it didn't ruin my bread, I could tell after it baked that it wasn't quite as tall and soft as it should have been. It was still delicious, but I like a spongier bread, and this turned out a bit more dense. But still deliciously oily.
I decided to bake my focaccia in one big half-sheet pan because I don't like doing dishes (have I mentioned that before?), but I could see doing this in a few boule-shaped rounds, or in tiny dinner roll-sized shapes. The benefit of one long big sheet though is you get more dimples. According to Paul Hollywood, this is a critical component of make focaccia, and I, though at first thought he was crazy, now agree with him. After using the amount of olive oil I ended up using for this dish, I realized the beauty of this bread as a delivery mechanism for the light and soft, slightly spicy and deliciously nutty flavor of olive oil. These dimples allow your oil to pool and soak deeper into the texture, lending a flavorful moistness to the loaf. Without them, the dough would, I fear, actually be too dry, and require more butter or a deeper dunk in oil upon consumption (not that more butter is a bad thing...).
A note on topping: focaccia tastes best paired with an herb and a big flake salt. I prefer rosemary as my herb, but many people use oregano as their traditional herb, but I find that reminds me too much of cheap pizza, and not enough of delicious focaccia. I ended up using herbes de Provence on this particular loaf because I didn't have rosemary, and I didn't want to walk back up the hill from the grocery store. Plus, cooking is about improvisation, and I'm all for that.
For the salt, I prefer a Maldon large flake sea salt, because it gives you a bit of a bite. If you can find it, buying a box is well worth the $8. You might think that's ridiculously expensive for salt, but I've had one box that lasted me three years, so it's really not that big of an investment, and it adds so much to your baked goods (sprinkled on a chocolate lava cake, on bread, on ice cream) and savory dishes (sprinkled on a steak, pork chops, sautéed vegetables).
The taste of this focaccia was amazing. We had my brother-in-law and his wife over that night and yes, between the four of us we ate the entire loaf. The crumb was tight, as I wrote before, but it retained its moisture and had a delicate softness. It was rich from the oil, but not in a way that made you feel heavy afterwards. And the crust gave the crumb the protection it needs, but wasn't hard or crunchy in any way, shape, or form -- it just added a certain depth. Dipped in a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and I couldn't keep my hands off the bread.
makes one half-sheet pan loaf
500 grams (17 2/3 ounces) (4 1/8 cups) FLOUR
1/2 cup OLIVE OIL (plus more for oiling hands, bowls, surfaces)
1/2 cup WARM WATER
3/4 cup COOL WATER
2 teaspoons SALT
3 teaspoons ACTIVE DRY YEAST
Flaky sea salt (Maldon preferred)
Your choice of herbs (fresh or frozen, rosemary and/or oregano preferred)
1. Mix the YEAST with the WARM WATER and in a bowl and leave to activate -- it should get frothy and bubbly and smell yeasty
2. Mix OIL, FLOUR, SALT and activated yeast and mix until incorporated
3. Add COOL WATER little by little until it all is incorporated -- your dough will be really wet and sticky
4. While still in the bowl, coat your hands with olive oil and fold the dough over on itself about a dozen times
5. Coat a surface and your hands with more olive oil and work the dough by stretching it out and folding it in on itself, occasionally lifting the dough up and slapping it down on your surface with gusto -- if it gets too sticky, add more oil (do not add more flour)
6. Place the dough in an oiled container, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour)
7. When risen, tip dough out of your container onto a parchment-lined and oiled half-sheet pan, and shape and deflate by pressing the dough out to fill the pan
8. Let dough rise for about 1 hour, preheat oven to 425F
9. When ready to bake, use all ten of your fingers to press directly down all over the dough and make dimples (it's okay if you tear some holes, as most of them will fill back up when it bakes)
10. Sprinkle top with large flaked salt (I used Maldon because I'm fancy) and your choice of herb (oregano and rosemary are traditional, all I had was herbes de provence)
11. Bake for 15-25 minutes, until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped on
12. As soon as you take it out of the oven, drip a bit more olive oil over top and let cool
If I were on The Great British Bakeoff (and I would be -- producers, you hear that??), Bread Week is the week I would be dreading from the beginning. Not that I'm scared by bread. Or that I don't know how to work with yeast. Or I'm afraid of the elbow grease of kneading (isn't that what mixers are for?). But just because so much can go so wrong, and I'm never quite sure why it does. When something goes wrong with a cake, like it sinks in the middle and looks like a butthole, I know the few things that could cause that: overmixing the eggs, too much leavening, or prematurely opening the oven door or poking the cake. But with bread? Who the hell knows? Just make sure your water is the right temperature, and pray (if that's your jam) is some of the rare advice I have to give.
And on GBBO, they talk up Paul so much, to be working with his recipe is a bit of pressure.
Anyway, yeast is always the place to start. I guess one other tip I have is: keep your yeast and your salt separate until your yeast is activated and working. Salt, allegedly, kills yeast, and at this point, you need all the help you can get--or at least I do.
So, after you make sure to keep your yeast far from your salt, you have to "activate" your yeast, if you're using "active dry yeast," like I do. Paul's original recipe calls for rapid rise yeast, where you can just dump it in with your dry ingredients, but I happen to like the added suspense of activating the yeast, and the smell of yeast activating, so I go old school. For this, the beginners (ahem, and me...) can whip out a thermometer. First, make sure your water is between 95F and 115F. That's what most people would call "lukewarm," but because I'm perpetually cold, and have a terrible sense of, well, anything, I whip out the digital thermometer and get precise about it. Once you sprinkle the yeast and mix a little, then sit for 10 minutes, you get this foamy, bubble, delicious-smelling (unless you're fiancé--he thinks it smells like feet) liquid. Mix it into everything else, and you get what they (the bread-making people) call a "shaggy mess."
And this is when I would throw it into my mixing bowl with the dough hook attachment on and leave the room for 5 minutes. But, alas, GBBO wouldn't make things quite that easy. Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, and those two foxy minx hosts are nefarious. The one rule they had was: no mixers. Hands only. So, I got to kneading.
But I'm not that good at kneading. You're supposed to knead until the dough is stretchy enough where you grab a piece, stretch it taught in four directions, and see light shining through--it's called the "windowpane" test. I wish I had a picture of this test to show you, so you can see what to look for, but I didn't take one. Because I never got to that stage. Mine stayed pretty weirdly pock-marked and rough. I tried to let it do its thing and rest for 5 minutes, but it never got better. But because I don't want to waste ingredients (I'm not bankrolled by Channel 4 here), I threw it in a container, covered it, and went to go watch Little Women: LA. When I came back: it had risen!!!
Things were working. So I went about shaping the dough: Pro-tip (am I allowed to call them "pro-tips" if I'm an amateur?): take your risen mass and punch it down, then roll it around on your counter and gather everything at the bottom of round, so the top is taut, shiny, and smooth.
One of the most fun things there is in making bread is slashing it right before you put it in the oven. Besides the foaming yeast and the growing dough, this is where you can really see how alive the dough is. When you make the slashes, the bread opens up like the San Andreas fault. With some flour topping it off -- heaven.
I think I maybe made too many slashes too close together, because my bread came out with nubbins hanging out on top. It was just so fun to do though. And I actually enjoyed plucking them off and crunching them in my gaping maw.
Anyway, the bread came out delicious. Paul Hollywood would say it needed another 3 minutes in the oven, since the inside, while done, was only just done. It was just what you could want in a regular white bread loaf: it had a tight crumb, a springy texture, a chompy crust (is that a descriptor?), and a mild taste. It was soft thanks to the butter, and even better thanks to the salted butter I slathered on top of it (butta' is betta').
Much as I hate bread, I didn't hate this challenge. But I think GBBO is starting me out easy. Next week, we stop being polite and start getting real.
Paul Hollywood's Crusty Cob Loaf
makes 1 loaf
500 grams (1 pound, 1 ounce) BREAD FLOUR
40 grams (1.5 ounces) SOFTENED BUTTER
12 grams (2 sachets) (3 teaspoons) ACTIVE DRY YEAST
10 grams (2 teaspoons) SALT
300 milliliters (1 1/4 cups) WARM WATER
1. Mix the YEAST with half of the WARM WATER in a bowl and leave for 10 minutes to activate -- it should get frothy and bubbly and smell yeasty
2. Put the FLOUR into a large mixing bowl and add the BUTTER and SALT
3. Add the yeast mixture and begin to turn the mixture with your fingers to combine
4. Continue to add the remaining water a little at a time, until you've picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl -- you may not need to add all the water, you may need to add a little more (you're looking for a dough that is well-combined and soft, but not sticky or soggy)
5. Use a teaspoon of oil to lightly grease a clean work surface and begin kneading by folding the far edge to the middle, turning, and repeating until covered in dough
6. Knead more aggressively by pushing the dough out in one direction with the heel of your hand, then fold it back in on itself, turn, and repeat for 4-5 minutes until smooth and stretchy
7. Clean and oil your bowl and put the dough back into it, cover, and leave to proof until doubled, about 1 hour
8. Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat
9. Knock the risen dough back, roll it up, turn, and repeat several times, then smooth into a round loaf shape
10. Place on the baking tray, cover, and proof again until doubled in size, about 1 hour
11. Preheat the oven to 425F, and put an empty pan in the bottom of the oven
12. Sprinkle some flour on top of the risen dough round, and use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts 1 centimeter deep in a diamond pattern across the top of the loaf
13. Put the loaf and tray in the middle of the oven, and pour cold water into the empty tray at the bottom, close the door quickly, and bake 30 minutes
14. The loaf is cooked when it's risen and golden, and sounds hollow when tapped underneath, cool on a wire rack
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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