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The Fox in Charge of the Henhouse

September 1, 2011

One day I’ll escape from these posts on trivial food matters and write about something important. Still about food, mind you, but important nevertheless. But that day isn’t today.

Today is a story about finding one of my favorite foods, unearthing a recipe built on that food, and the inherent danger of putting me in charge of other people’s food.

Last night I found myself at a lectern with a microphone, standing in front of a room full of adults, and I was proclaiming my love of challah. This is a deep love that goes far back to grade school. But looking back I’m convinced the challot of my youth were for the most part nothing to get very excited about.

I undertook this speaking engagement because apparently I’m now in charge of something called the Challah Committee. I have no idea exactly how many challot I’ll be ordering every week, but it’s a lot of them. And I’ll be working with a local bakery that hands down makes the best challah I’ve had in the area.

This could be dangerous.

Part of me pictures this scene where I, like Gollum, am huddled with the racks of freshly backed loaves, hoarding them all to myself, naked and alone in a dark closet somewhere. But it’s relatively unlikely it will come to that. The real danger is much more sinister.

A good challah isn’t easy to find. Leah the Nosher may try to tell you that they are easy to make, although as a non-baker I’m not convinced. Still, some of hers are amazing (especially the slightly undercooked doughy ones) and one day she’ll inspire me to make one of my own.

Most of the challah I eat during the summer is sad stuff. Both the ones at Fresh Market and Hannaford come frozen and are thawed for my convenience. But even those are better than the fresh baked ones at Price Chopper. Don’t get me started about that bready monstrosity they sell at Bountiful Bread.

The only other decent specimens available locally are ones that are trucked up here from downstate. Being very polite, and promising regular visits from cute young children, for a while I was getting my challah as part of the shipment Ohav Shalom Apartments would receive from the Rockland Bakery. Saati in Latham also has challah from downstate, and it’s mighty fine too.

But the best locally is all the way out in Schenectady at the Mount Pleasant Bakery. And these are the good people I’ll be ordering from every week.

The only problem is that it’s a schlep to get out there, regardless of how great the bread. Which is why every year, I look forward to the school year starting up again, and being able to take advantage of the weekly deliveries to the synagogue.

Now here’s a secret. Even from a great bakery, not all challah is created equal.

To get the very best, like all things, you have to know how to pick a good one. Now perhaps there are some people who like their challah a little bit stiffer. God bless them. But the whole point of challah is for it to be rich and soft. And using your eyes and your hands you can generally find the blondest and most yielding loaf from a bunch. Just barely cooked, with braids that are still discrete and ropey, is my gold standard for the form.

I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. Especially since part of my responsibilities will be distributing the delivery of these delicious challot to those who have placed an order. It will be hard not to play favorites.

As I told the crowd from the podium, even if you don’t celebrate Shabbat, challah is excellent for eating out of hand, brilliant with butter, fabulous as French toast, and bodacious as bread pudding.

It was the bread pudding that made people perk up. So let me just say this quickly.

When I first got into cooking, I exclusively made desserts. Many of them were memorable. But especially memorable was a chocolate bread pudding I made for one Thanksgiving with Raf and ADS. I hit up one of Raf’s cookbooks and found a recipe from the Wolfgang Puck Cookbook that looked great.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I found two links to the recipe:
The shady link and the Google books link.

For the record, I omitted all the nuts and made a different sauce to go with the dessert. But besides that I followed the recipe and can vouch for its fabulous results.

What makes this different from any other bread pudding I’ve had, not to mention super decadent, is that the challah is soaked in heavy cream for THIRTY MINUTES. The bread simply breaks down when it’s mixed with the other ingredients. It creates a silky rich base for a custard made of cream and egg yolks, enriched with butter, and lightened with whipped egg whites.

My chest is tightening just thinking about it. Challah is dangerous stuff.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    September 1, 2011 10:14 am

    *drooling* You had me at heavy cream. I can’t read this before breakfast! :-)

  2. Tonia permalink
    September 1, 2011 10:16 am

    I just looked at that recipe. Ridiculously. Decadent. Why no hazelnuts??? (They’re my fav.)

  3. September 1, 2011 10:40 am

    I like the Placid Baker’s challah.

  4. September 1, 2011 11:16 am

    I’ve never had challah. But that recipe makes it look not all that hard to make. Maybe I’ll have to try it sometime. :)

  5. Raf permalink
    September 1, 2011 2:23 pm

    You could probably just tell people that you huddled naked with their challah and you’d get to keep it all for yourself.

  6. September 2, 2011 10:45 am

    For local challah, there’s also Slices of Heaven which is the bakery out of Temple Sinai in Saratoga. They make traditional, whole wheat and vegan, along with incredible granola, and sell all of the above at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market each week. All of their profits go to the Regional Food Bank. If you are seeking a kosher, weekly challah purchase, using their services would be money well spent.

    Challah dough IS relatively easy to make as breaddough goes. Traditionally, there are no sponges involved, nor steam for the oven. But there are many, many variables that can have an effect on the final product.

    The bottom line with Challah is that you get to try again each week, it’s never perfect, nor is it supposed to be. I wrote a piece once in an uproar about the URJ proposing using Yellow Food Coloring in their Challot (much like Price Chopper and Hanaford) instead of encouraging bakers to find the freshest eggs possible with the brightest yolks. Additionally, implying that something artificial being added to change its appearance will thereby make it taste better is a complete fallacy.

    The real bottom line is that challah is good because of the memories that come with it and that my children get a piece of their heritage when we make it together, and they don’t care how it tastes in the end, nor how bright the yellow is. And, God knows, the fresh eggs, local honey, the good quality flour relaxed at the correct time during the kneading process, following the correct number of rises, paying attention to the type of pan, and getting to choose sesame vs. poppy vs. raisin doesn’t hurt the taste either.

    By the by, there’s this gal named Leah who makes Special Occasion Challot to sell, and who makes the challah for the CGOH Potlucks and Tot Shabbats each week. I hear it’s pretty good.

  7. Ellen Whitby permalink
    September 7, 2011 11:18 pm

    Huddled naked in a closet hoarding bread? Food coloring in challot? Yikes…what is this world coming to? I have an amazing recipe for challah. It was a wedding gift. I used to make it as often as I could. Since the recipe yielded 12 good sized challot, I didn’t have to bake every week. Now I’m lucky if I can bake it at all. If you’d like, I can invite you to join me the next time and that would be a great incentive to bake. Or I can just give you a few of them. Let me know?

    PS Did you notice the 4 question marks?

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