My primary love as a baker is bread. For many years I thought myself a highly competent home bread-baker, and when I grew frustrated with hitting what I thought was my ceiling as a self-taught baker, I enrolled in a week-long course at the Culinary Institute of America with the hopes of making myself into a professional-level superstar. Instead I discovered that what had been my ceiling was suddenly my floor. I was, in fact, a really crappy baker in the grand scheme of things. I came home from my well-fed week with a vast new understanding of what I was doing when baking bread, but a far greater cognizance of when things went wrong. I went into a baking funk, and then we moved into stately IPB Manor, where I hated, hated, hated our kitchen. We spent almost two full years in suspended animation wherein I kept assuring Pookie and Boomer that I’d start baking again as soon as the remodel was done. Today, I had to admit it was time to get back in the saddle.
I decided to go with my very favorite bread recipe, specifically the challah from “Baking With Julia”. This recipe is not even remotely kosher, but as my annual bacchanal of Pork suggests, I don’t really keep kosher (there’s a variety of reasons for that, not least of which is that I’m Quaker), so the egg/butter combo doesn’t bother me in the least. There was no small amount of rust on my bread skillz today, though. I discovered at the CIA that I am a chronic under-kneader, so I decided I was going to try to ignore my dough as my mixer was working it until the specified kneading time in the recipe — 8 to 10 minutes — had elapsed. After just five minutes, though, my mixer crapped out, and I discovered my dough was a rock-hard heap of overdeveloped gluten. Whoops! Oh well. I decided since there would be two proofs before even shaping the loaves that it would have time to relax and, feeling chagrined, I slapped the dough into my beloved dough-rising bucket and walked away. An hour and 45 minutes (with one punch-down in the middle) later, it had relaxed, doubled in size twice and was eager to get braiding.
Now, I may have had my confidence shattered at the CIA, but I also learned something magical: the six-strand braid. None of this three-strand crap for me! The enriched dough was silky, soft and elastic, and an utter joy to work with. After another 40 minutes doubling in bulk, I egg-washed these puppies up, sprinkled them with kosher salt, and experienced the thrill that is having two ovens. I baked both loaves at once! Woo hoo!
And with the house filled to the rafters with the head-swimmingly delicious aroma of fresh-baked, buttery loaves, we let them cool until they were still just a tiny bit warm and sliced into them. The crumb was satisfactory, if not dazzling. I had a fair deal of compression and swirling where the strands of the braids met, but for the most part I was pleased. The texture was soft and a bit mouthy without being chewy, and the flavor? Well, it reminded me again why I love baking bread so much.