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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Peter Reinhart's Whole Wheat Challah

Peter Reinhart's Whole Wheat Challah (sort of)

I have never made a braided loaf of any kind before, and I didn't realize I was in trouble until I actually began to braid the dough.

This is supposed to be Peter Reinhart's Whole Wheat Challah from his book, Whole Grain Breads.  It doesn't look anything at all like the nice Challah that he made for the book's picture, of course.  This is what happens when someone totally inexperienced tries this recipe for the first time.


Soaker ingredients

There is nothing much to say about the soaker.  It is just the three simple ingredients.

Biga ingredients

The biga felt really runny to me.  I neglected to measure the eggs (and it is a lot of eggs), but I probably wouldn't have tossed any away even if I had.  I did incorporate a fair amount of flour during the kneading stage, but I'm sure that it was still much too wet.  I persevered anyway.

Biga is extremely wet: I'd say, unkneadable

Kind of gloppy

The final dough seemed to come together okay, but as for passing the windowpane test, there was no way that this sloppy dough was going to do that.  Still, it had a gumminess to it that promised to hold together the dough.

Final Dough ingredients

Trying to incorporate more flour because it is just too wet

Resting periods for the dough are as important as the kneading

I waited an hour and a half for this dough to rise, and it was only supposed to take 45-60 minutes.  Again, I saw more sag than rise.  But it was substantially lighter in consistency: I think it just unfolded more than expanded.

dough after 90 minutes: the oil has slipped down the sides of the bowl and made a puddle

I discovered that I'm not much good at dividing dough evenly into 3 parts equal weight, by eye.

Reinhart instructs you to roll out the dough to 3", let it rest, and then roll it out to 10".  Well, my pieces started at 7", and I rolled them out to 17".   The strands in his book look to be longer than 10", though, so I felt somewhat justified.

But one of my strands was double the size of the other two, so I cut it in half.

One of these things is not like the other
The decision is made to shape a 4-braid Challah

"It'll be okay," I reasoned, "since Reinhart gives instructions for how to braid a 4-strand Challah too."

Well, there are pictures for the 3-strand, and the 6-strand challah, but there is only a one-line sentence for how to braid the 4-strand:

"4 over 2, 1 over 3, and 2 over 3," Reinhart tells us.

I had read over the instructions for the 3-strand, and that method seemed pretty simple.  The 6-strand method looked a bit more complicated, but I didn't have to worry about that, I thought.

But if you have 4 strands, you have to know the 6-strand method, since the 4-strand method is closer to that 6-strand method than it is to the 3-strand method.  I suppose one is supposed to easily get the idea of the 4-strand method just from looking at the other instructions. 

Well, to put it simply, I ran into trouble right away.

I labelled my strands, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 in my head.  They were pinched together at the top, the farthest away from me.

I took 4 over 2, 1 over 3, and 2 over 3.  No problem.  Or so I thought.  I guess now, looking at my pictures, I did 1 over 2 (which is the new 3, but it shouldn't be renumbered until the whole series is complete), and that messed me up.

I take it (from re-reading the 6-strand method), you are supposed to renumber the strands 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 again only after the series is complete.

This is where I got hopelessly confused; I tried to do it renumbering "on the fly", I think.

Realizing this, I tried to back-track by lifting the last strand I placed back where it was before.  I thus discovered with horror mounting that these strands of dough -- whether they are 10" or 17" -- as soon as you start manipulating them, they are going to stretch and thin out, and they are so sticky they are going to immediately start melding to whatever other dough or counter surface that they touch.  The best way to do this, obviously, is to do it quickly and with confidence -- a sure, gentle hand.

Willendorf Descends

If the ancient unknown artist who created the Venus of Willendorf collaborated with Marcel Duchamp, the artist who created 'Nude descending a Staircase', this braided bread would be what they'd come up with.  See the resemblance?

My Challah braid is art.

What I am trying to say is, all this means you should practice braiding.  And if you practice, you quickly notice that the outer strands cross over the inner strands, and then the inner strands are crossed, repeatedly until you are done.  This can and should be done fairly quickly, because it is an easy procedure.  In theory.

Well, I didn't practice, and the strands were a mess, and my hands were so sticky and the strands were elongating like Reed Richard's forearm, so I just quickly finished and set the whole blob on some parchment to sit, scrunchying it up in the move to the parchment.

The pictures of my "braid" are actually quite hilarious to me now.

And it was so wet that the whole thing just kind of sagged there on the parchment.  And there was no rise at this stage, just sag.  And my wife and I just sort of looked at the mess and knew it was nothing like it was supposed to be, but hey.  It was still going to be bread, more or less.

I painted the eggwash on and used sesame seeds: already sagging so the braids are invisible

I baked it 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes, plus another 25 minutes -- longer than Reinhart suggests by about 10 minutes, but I've had some bad results with our oven not acting hot enough, and I didn't want to take any chances.  I pounded the bottom of the loaf and it didn't sound quite done, hence the longer time.

There is no evidence of any braids left in this loaf.

Elephant man loaf

So I wouldn't call this, my attempt at Reinhart's recipe, a challah.

I probably won't ever make this again (unless it tastes exceptional, then I might trot it out at special occasions to use up some eggs).  Oh, but I see the next recipe in Reinhart's book is a transitional challah, so I have at least one more chance.  I do have to make a braided loaf at least one more time.

Then I can finally begin to try the hearth loaves, which I expect I will like a whole lot more than the recipes I've tried so far in Reinhart's book.

This bread actually does taste quite nice.  There is a lot of fat in it, of course, so it is bound to please, so long as it is properly baked.  And it turns out that this loaf is.  The crust is nice, the crumb is nice, the taste is nice.  I'm sure that it won't keep long, but then, it probably won't have to.  Even my wife looks interested in it.

Of course, she doesn't want to try any of my bread right now though, because today she baked herself about three dozen Berliner doughnuts (A German tradition in her household, when she was growing up, and something she has continued, as a "New Year Treat").  Those doughnuts are far too sugary for my taste, so she will have to eat all of them by herself. 

I will take a whole wheat bread over them any day of the week.  This bread allows me to say no to the Berliners.

Notes to Myself
  • Practice your braid before you start in on the dough.  No excuses.
  • Braid it directly on the parchment paper, you don't want to lift this later.
  • Don't wait the entire 2 hours before the Biga comes to room temperature to start this. Cooler dough will actually help during the braiding procedure, I bet.

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