Tag: Bread making

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

The core of every Jewish family is the Friday night dinner which greets the Sabbath. Even an unbeliever like me is deeply moved by ritual of the blessings over candles, bread and wine that bring my family together with each other and with our culture. And there’s only one bread for this: the plaited, egg-enriched, slightly sweetened white loaf called challah (or cholla, depending on your favourite transliteration of the Hebrew חַלָּה‎). Jewish children are addicted to the stuff from an early age and not just for its ritual significance: good challah combines tastiness and pillowy soft texture in a way that’s hard to beat. Beware, though: a lot of bakeries sell challah that looks the part with its perfect plaiting, but is dry or tasteless or both. Which is a good reason for making your own.

For the purposes of this series, challah counts as the entry for Israel. In truth, however, it’s spread throughout the world and you can’t help noticing that similar breads are baked all over Europe from Germany eastwards by Jews and gentiles alike.

Three strand challah after second rise, ready for baking

There are many ways of braiding your challah and at some point, you need to decide on how many strands you’re going to use: I recommend that you start with 3, but you can go for anything from 2 to 9. You’ve almost certainly spotted from the photographs that I’m fairly rubbish at this part of the puzzle, so I’m not even going to attempt to do a better of job of showing you how than this Czech YouTube video, which shows you how to do all of them. However, my challah is reliably soft and tastes reliably good, so I’ll stand by the virtues of my recipe, which is based on the one in Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s excellent book How To Make Bread. Hadjiandreou is decidedly non-Jewish, but who’s asking? His recipe has worked better for me than the ones from many synagogue websites.

Four strand Challah after baking

This makes a single small loaf. It takes several hours from start to finish, but that’s mostly waiting time: the amount of actual work isn’t too horrific.

  • 250g Strong while flour
  • 4g tsp salt
  • 15g sugar
  • 3g dried yeast
  • 80ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 2 eggs
  • 20g sunflower oil
  • Poppy seeds or sesame seeds for dusting the top

Ideally, you want a silicone baking sheet to put over your baking tray (better still if you have the Silpat silicone/fibreglass type, which I don’t). But otherwise, baking parchment will do.

  1. Preheat your oven to 50℃
  2. Weigh out and mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl
  3. Weigh out and mix the warm water and yeast in another bowl
  4. Separate one egg and set aside the white in a bowl; mix the yolk with the whole of the second egg, beat lightly and add to the water/yeast mix
  5. Pour the dry mix into the wet mix and combine until it’s beginning to feel like dough. It will probably still be a bit gritty
  6.  Add the oil and mix until you have  a smooth dough
  7. You could at this point proceed directly to kneading. But you’ll save yourself time and elbow grease by leaving the dough for 10 minutes (a process called autolysis), giving it a quick fold or two and then repeating this a couple of times
  8. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface. You’ll only need a bit of flour on your hands and on the surface – don’t be tempted to flood the dough with raw flour at this stage. Keep kneading until the dough is elastic and springs back when tugged or prodded.
  9. Turn your oven off. Put your ball of dough back into the bowl, cover it and leave it to rise in your turned off oven. You’ll probably want it to rise for a couple of hours: you have to judge this by eye and experience. 
  10. Punch the dough down, transfer it to a lightly floured surface, divide it into equal parts: as many as you have chosen for your braid. Roll each part into a sausage, stretched out as long as you can reasonably make it while keeping all your strands the same length.
  11. Braid the dough as per the instructions in the video – either on your board or, preferably, directly onto the baking sheet.
  12. Transfer the baking sheet onto your tray (or, if you didn’t have a baking sheet, transfer the braided loaf to your lined tray). Brush the loaf with some of the egg white that you reserved in step 4, and sprinkle a generous helping of sesame or poppy seeds over the top.
  13. Cover the challah with an inverted bowl or domed lid that’s large enough so that the challah won’t touch it when it expands. Now leave it in a warm place until it is well risen: this can be anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours depending on the ambient temperature and on how strong your yeast was in the first place.
  14. Make sure you turn your oven to 200℃ fan in plenty of time: the oven could easily take 15-20 minutes to come to temperature and you don’t want your challah sagging horribly while you’re waiting for it.
  15. Bake the challah for around 20 minutes. The crust should be a medium to dark golden brown and if you stick a skewer into the bottom, there should be no sign of stickiness upon removal.
  16. Leave the challah to cool on a rack.

Notes: 

For step 9, various authorities on bread-making say that you will get a better flavour by using a much slower rise at much lower temperature: perhaps 8 hours at a room temperature of 20℃ or so, or even longer in the fridge. I’ve never tried.

For step 13, if you have two ovens, you can use the same trick as step 9: preheat one oven to 50℃, then turn it off and use it as a proving drawer. Then use the other oven for the actual bake. If you only have one oven, you can’t really do this: if you have a boiler cupboard or airing cupboard that’s warmer than your kitchen, you can use it. Otherwise, you’ll just have to do the second rise at room temperature and be patient.

Some recipes recommend that you preheat the oven to 250℃ and then turn it down as soon as you’ve put the bread in. This gets a slightly better crust, but runs the risk of you forgetting to turn the oven down, something that’s now happened to me sufficiently often that I don’t go for this any more.

The usual in-process shots:

And here’s a quick look at the braiding process. But truly, use someone else’s!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Quite simply, Char siu bao are the best street food ever. These steamed, yeasted dumplings filled with sticky barbecued pork may have started life in the heat of Southern China, but they’ve migrated to every corner of the country (and much of Asia and the rest of the world). In Beijing and Shanghai, there are whole shops devoted to them, not least because they make a fantastic warmer in the cold winters. People argue about the finer points of whose version is best.

None of this is a secret, but there are two surprises. The first is that bao are relatively easy to make, if you’re used to baking: you mostly use standard bread-making techniques, the difference coming only at the end when you use a steamer instead of an oven (there are baked versions of bao, but the steamed ones are far more common). The second is that they’re as good a dish to make at home as they are to eat on the street or in a dim sum joint: they freeze wonderfully and 20 seconds in a microwave will get a bao from fridge temperature to a delicious and warming snack.

A few subtleties before you start:

  • You will need a steamer, either purpose-built or jury-rigged. The ideal is to have one or two Chinese bamboo steamers set over a wok with a couple of centimetres of boiling water (they stack). But you can use anything you like that gets steam flowing around your bao without them ending up in a pool of hot water.
  • The bao you buy off the street in China or in dim sum joints are preternaturally white. That’s because they’re made from highly bleached flour (if you’re in a Chinese shop, ask for “Hong Kong flour”). Personally, I’m not bothered.
  • Tracts have been written on the best way to achieve maximum fluffiness of the bun. I’ve still got room from improvement here: when lockdown ends, I’ll be trying some different types of flour and technical variations on when to add the baking powder, whether to do a second prove, etc. For now, I’m going with a 5:1 mix of strong white bread flour to cornflour (it’s what I’ve got). Ideally, use a white flour with a low protein content.
  • The filling given here is an example. Use your favourite Chinese flavourings: bean pastes, oyster sauce, whatever; add chili if want it spicy. The choice is yours.
  • Choose your favourite spelling: Char siu vs Char siew vs chāshāo. And choose your favourite recipe for making it: I’ve given you one below.

Dough

  • 8g dried yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 180g warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 300g white flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 50℃ (you’ll be using it to prove the dough).
  2. Combine water, sugar and yeast; stir well to dissolve; leave for 10 minutes or so
  3. Combine flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder and mix thoroughly
  4. Once your wet mixture is nicely frothy, add it to the dry mixture. Mix thoroughly into a ball and then knead for around 5-10 minutes – you’ve kneaded it enough when the dough is very elastic and bounces back nicely when you stretch or punch it.
  5. Put the dough into a large bowl with a damp tea towel over it. SWITCH OFF THE OVEN and put it in. Leave the dough to to rise for around 60-90 minutes. I can never figure out what people mean when they say “until it’s doubled in size”: I leave the dough until it’s mostly filled the bowl.

Filling

You’ll have time to make your filling while the dough is being left to rise.

  • 200g Char siu (see below for recipe)
  • 90g red onion or banana shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 tbs oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 1 tbs hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soya sauce
  1. Chop the Char siu very finely (around 3mm dice would be ideal). Chop the onion, garlic and spring onions very finely also.
  2. Heat oil in your wok to high heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic, stir-fry for a couple of minutes
  3. Add spring onions, stir fry until onions are transparent
  4. Add Char siu, hoisin sance and dark soya sauce, mix thoroughly, then turn the heat down and stir fry for a minute or two until everything is combined and fragrant.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool while your dough is rising. If you’re going to use the same wok for steaming, you’ll now need to decant the filling to another bowl and wash up the wok.

Assembly

  1. Cut twelve squares of greaseproof paper, around 8cm square.
  2. Take the dough out of its bowl and divide into twelve portions, as evenly as you can manage (the easiest way to get them even is to roll the dough into a cylinder, chop it into half, chop each half in half and then each remaining piece into three).
  3. With a floured rolling pin on  floured surface, roll a portion of dough out into a flat disc, around 12cm in diameter.
  4. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle (don’t touch it with your fingers or you’ll then stain the dough)
  5. Pinch up the dough into pleats, ensuring at each stage that the filling isn’t being allowed to drop out. You end up with a shape a bit like the onion dome on a Russian church.
  6. Put the completed dumpling on a square of greaseproof paper and transfer it to your steamer.
  7. Repeat for the remaining bao. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to do this in several batches.
  8. Steam the bao for around 12-15 minutes until fluffy and cooked through.

Making your own Char Siu

Char siu is barbecued, marinated pork. The first thing you have to decide is what pork to buy. My preferred cut is shoulder, which has some fat in it but not too much. Fillet (aka tenderloin) or loin is OK, but has so little fat content that it tends to dry out. Belly is the opposite: your char siu will be beautifully soft but you may find it rather fatty.

There are a million different recipes for the marinade. They pretty much all involve soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, a sweetener (sugar / honey / hoisin sauce) and something to make it sour (vinegar / tomato puree). Shaoxing rice wine is a popular addition. Quantities can vary wildly according to taste.

The best suggestion I’ve found for simulating the way the Chinese make char siu comes from Woks of life: set your oven to its highest setting (probably 250℃ fan) and roast your meat on a grid over water. I’ve gone for a simplified version of what they do.

By tradition, char siu is red. In practise, this is typically achieved by using red food colouring. Personally, I can’t be bothered, so my char siu is brown.

  • Pork shoulder – 1 kg
  • Garlic – 3 clove, crushed
  • Five spice powder – ½ tsp
  • Dark soya sauce – 1 tbs
  • Hoisin sauce – 1 tbs
  • Shaoxing rice wine – 1 tbs
  • Tomato puree – 1 tbs
  1. Cut the pork into large strips (around 6-8 cm in diameter). If you’re using tenderloin, that’s pretty much the width of the whole thing, so just cut it in half.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the pork, dunk the pork into the marinade and make sure it’s all properly coated, cover and leave overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 250℃, with an oven shelf near the top.
  4. Use a deep oven dish half-filled with water. Place a grid over the oven dish, then put the pork on the grid. 
  5. Put the whole lot into the oven and roast for around 40 minutes. You want the pork to be cooked through, but not dry. You may want to baste the pork with any remaining marinade every 10 minutes or so.

The quantities given are for 1 kg of pork, which is over three times what you’ll need for one batch of bao. The idea is that you’re going to eat some freshly cooked for a main meal, and then use the leftovers for bao a day or so later, freezing any you have left after that.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.6: Pan Rustico

This week-end, I’m heading to Spain in the tracks of the Hairy Bikers for my attempt at their Pan Rustico (virtually, that is, since we’re all in coronavirus lockdown). Think of it as a kind of sourdough for those who don’t want the faff of maintaining a starter: basically, you make a flour, yeast and water mix and leave it to ferment for 24 hours, which you then use in the same way you would a sourdough starter. It avoids all the messing around with keeping the starter fed for a week and gives results that are not dissimilar. You get a bread that’s really soft and aerated, with a nice crust, perfect for a soup or a salad-and-cheese kind of lunch.

Here in the UK, a giant lockdown-induced rise in home bread-making has meant that you can’t buy flour at the moment: apparently, the problem isn’t that the millers can’t mill the stuff but that they’re used to selling to bakeries in bulk, and they’re struggling to get retail packaging for small quantities. Fortunately, I’ve been making bread for a few months now and I’d just placed my three-monthly order from buywholefoodsonline.co.uk when the crisis hit. But the selection of flours in the house is a bit idiosyncratic, so I used wholemeal spelt flour rather than the wheat flour in Si and Dave’s recipe. As it happens, I think that was a win – but that’s for you to decide.

To make bread for lunch, you’ll need to make your starter first thing in the morning the day before; you’ll then make the actual bread on the day.

I’m going to be honest, here: I’m not sure how particularly Spanish the results are… But it was lovely bread anyway!

Starter:

  • 150 ml warm water
  • 1tsp sugar
  • 1tsp dried yeast
  • 125g strong white flour

It’s the usual bread-making drill: dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water, give it 10 minutes or so to start frothing, then mix in the flour. Leave the whole lot for 24 hours.

The main action:

  • 200 ml warm water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 225 g strong white flour, plus lots more for your board
  • 100g wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus a bit more for greasing your bowl

Before you start, choose a bowl in which you’re going to prove your bread and grease it with olive oil. Also preheat an oven to 50℃: as soon as it gets to temperature, switch it off.

  1. Start with same drill as before: dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water and leave it for 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix your flours and the salt.
  3. Once your wet mix is frothing nicely pour it into the dry mix and add the starter dough you made the previous day, as well as the olive oil. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.
  4. Spread generous amounts of flour over your board or other surface and transfer your dough to it. Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes until it’s very elastic, then form into a ball and put it in your oiled bowl. You want to do a lot of stretching and folding in your kneading process, because you’re trying to get air into the dough. If your bowl has a lid, use it now; otherwise, cover it with cling film.
  5. Now let the bread rise. This takes about an hour if you do it using the “preheat an oven to 50℃ and switch it off” method; if you’re doing something different like using a boiler room or airing cupboard, I can’t guess… Wait for the bread to have risen nicely, and I’m not even going to attempt to define accurately what that means.
  6. Choose a baking tray and cut out a piece of baking paper to put on it.
  7. Shove some more flour onto your surface and carefully transfer your dough to it – keeping it in one piece as best you can. Now stretch and fold it a few times: what you’re trying to do is to get more air into it, and to stretch the ends and pull the surface tight, tucking the dough under (this is easier than it sounds). Form your dough into your favourite shape (a ball? and rugby ball?) on your lined baking tray. If you want the traditional pattern on the top, slash a few gashes in it.
  8. Now leave your bread to prove. If you have a double oven, put the bread back into the one you used for its first rise, and warm the other one up to 240℃. If you have a single one, you’ll have to find somewhere else that’s warm to do the proving (or be patient if it’s at a cold room temperature).
  9. I always struggle with knowing whether the bread has proved the right amount, so I’m not going to proffer advice here either. With me, 40 minutes was plenty enough.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes. Take out and cool on a rack.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.5: Borodinsky bread

When people use the words “Russian” and “Bread” in the same sentence, the chances are that the word “Rye” appears between them. And the most famous of Russian rye breads is Borodinsky Bread (in Russian: бородинский хлеб): a dark, dense, coriander-spiced sourdough.

Soviet Russia being what it was, there were officially sanctioned recipes. Therefore, if you’re on a quest for officially authentic Borodinsky Bread (and a Russian speaker) look no further than GOST 5309-50. There’s an even older source, which predates the GOST standards board, for “Borodinsky Supreme” (the 100% rye version; the “standard” has 15% wheat flour). It’s reprinted in a 1940 recipe book and lovingly recreated in this Youtube video. The origin of the name, by the way, is by no means as precise, with various stories to pick from. Choose your favourite: mine involves the wife of a general using coriander from her garden to make flavour the bread she was making to fortify the troops at the battle of Borodino (but don’t spend too much time considering the plausibility of a general’s wife feeding an entire Napoleonic army).

For an amateur baker in the West today, there are two problems with going for absolute authenticity. The first is that the process is seriously lengthy, with multiple stages of pre-ferment, “scald” and different rises and washes. The second is that you may struggle to get hold of one of the key ingredients: red rye malt (in Russian: solod (солод). If you’re desperate for the authentic, look out for stockists of home brewery supplies like this one.

While I may get round to trying for absolute authenticity one of these days, for regular use, I’m doing a cut down version based on the one in my usual bible, Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. I’ve approximately doubled the quantities for my large loaf tin and done a bit of flavour adjustment for my own taste: in particular, I’ve reduced the molasses, which I do find tend to take over the flavour to the exclusion of everything else, at the expense of the result not being quite as dark.

The first ingredient, as in any sourdough, is the starter: mine has been going for six months now. I bake a loaf more or less weekly, and refresh it with two parts water to one part dark rye.

Ingredients

  • 80g dark rye sourdough starter
  • 580g dark rye flour
  • 100g light rye flour
  • 10g salt
  • 10g ground coriander
  • 5g coriander seeds
  • 30g molasses
  • 30g barley malt extract

Method

  1. The night before you will be baking, make your “production sourdough”: mix your starter with 80g of dark rye flour and 100ml of water. Leave at room temperature overnight: in the morning, it should be bubbly and nicely fermented.
  2. Crush the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Brush the sides of your loaf tin with oil, and line the sides with half of them.
  3. Make your dry mixture of the rest of the flours, the salt and the ground coriander. Make your wet mixture from the production starter, 400ml of lukewarm water (mine was at 43℃), the molasses and the barley malt extract.
  4. Mix the two together thoroughly till everything is smoothly combined into a wet, sticky dough. Pour the dough into your bread tin, shaping it to be somewhat domed at the top. Don’t bother trying to press the dough into the corners of the tin. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, I haven’t forgotten all about the kneading stage: it’s just that dark rye won’t form gluten properly so there’s no point in bothering).
  5. Sprinkle the remaining coriander seeds over the top of the loaf and press them in slightly.
  6. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place: my own technique is to heat an over to 50℃, put the bread tin in together with a mug of water, and switch the oven off. It’s hard to know how long the rise time is likely to be: mine took about 6 hours.
  7. Preheat your oven to 250℃. Bake for 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 200℃ and bake for another 30-45 minutes. I tend to take mine out after 40 when it’s still just a fraction damp, because I don’t like risking overbaked, dried out dense rye; you may be braver.

Like any dark rye, this won’t rise massively. But the combination of rye, sourdough ferment and coriander makes Borodinsky the most intensely flavoured bread I know and my favourite accompaniment to lunchtime soups and salads.

As usual, a few in-process shots:

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.1: Moldovan Plăcinte

For the next year or two, I’m planning to explore breads, cakes, pastries and other baked goods from many different countries, including places we don’t normally hear about as well as the obvious ones. Being a rank amateur, will I get to 80 before I give up? I don’t know, but watch this space…

A Plăcintă (the plural is Plăcinte) is a flat pastry or filled bread from Moldova or Romania. It’s a pretty broad term: look up recipes online and you’ll find dozens of different variants: the filling can be sweet or savoury, the dough can be yeasted or not and can be made and rolled in various ways.

For this one, working from a Youtube video from someone called Katy’s Food, I’ve chosen a cheese filling and a yeasted, layered dough, which results in a kind of cheese bread. Each ball of dough is rolled out thinly and wrapped around its filling into a sausage-shape, which is then formed into a spiral before being baked.

The result is a layered, flaky bread that’s very delicious.

Vera, the only Moldovan I know and the person who suggested I try making plăcinte, gave them her seal of approval, although she recommended adding chopped spring onions to the cheese filling and she would have used a medium-soft curd cheese: the nearest you get in London is “twaróg”, which you can find in Polish food shops or larger supermarkets. As far as I can see from the web, quark is similar (though I’ve never tried using it).

Ingredients

I’ve reduced the recipe to make 6 plăcinte, which is what fits into my oven. There’s 100g of flour and 80g of cheese in each one, so they make for a very large snack or a substantial component of a lunch.

  • 600g strong white bread flour
  • 300 ml of warm water (around 40℃)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 500g cheese (I used 300g feta and 200g grated cheddar, but see above)
  • 2 large eggs
  • sunflower oil

Method
I won’t give instructions for bread-making basics like mixing, kneading, proving, testing for doneness: if you’re already a bread-maker, you’ll have your favourite methods for these; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the right recipe to start on. The best book I’ve found so far is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters.

  1. Weigh out and mix flour and salt
  2. Mix warm water, sugar and yeast, leave 10 minutes or so until foamy
  3. Combine wet and dry mixes and knead until you have an elastic dough. then leave to rise
  4. While the dough is rising, make your filling. If using a hard cheese, start by grating it, then beat the eggs and combine them with the cheese(s) to form a paste.
  5. Cut the dough into six pieces (it’s probably  a good idea to weigh these out to ensure they’re all the same)
  6. On a floured surface, roll a piece out into as thin a circle or rectangle as you can manage. Transfer the circle of dough onto a large plate or other surface, and brush with a thin later of oil until the surface is covered. Repeat for the other pieces, stacking the circles on top of each other.
  7. And now the tricky part of the recipe: take your first circle of dough and transfer it to your original surface, stretching it with your fingers as far as you dare without tearing it. Take a sixth of your filling, spread it into a sausage the length of one end of a circle of dough, then roll it up into a cylinder. Now form the cylinder into a spiral and transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper or parchment.
  8. When you formed all six plăcinte, leave them to prove
  9. Brush with beaten egg
  10. Bake at 180℃ fan (mine took around 20 minutes, but your oven may differ: I get the distinct impression that mine runs hotter than most.

Finally, here are some photos at various stages of the process: