“I did! At least, I tried to relax, but I ended up baking bread all day on Sunday.” I replied, arranging slices of challah next to the office kitchen sink.
“That sounds relaxing. Wasn’t it?” she asked.
“Not really.” I sighed. “I must have done something wrong, because the dough was so runny that it spread across the counter and started dripping on the floor.” A motherly sort of person, J would sympathize with my culinary crises.
“Maybe I used the wrong flour.” I pondered.
“Is there a wrong flour?” she asked. I didn’t know. The recipe calls for “strong white flour,” but I have five different types of flour, and I wasn’t sure which was the strongest.
Or maybe I shouldn't have used my hand-held electric mixer to mix the ingredients. Mrs. Beeton instructs us to “Rub in the butter or margarine. Beat the eggs into the yeast mixture and stir in the flour mixture. Mix to a soft dough.” As I mixed and beat the ingredients, the flour clumped into pebbles and the runny dough splashed the cabinets. It was at this point that I began to panic.I gave up the mixer and began squishing flour clumps with my hands. This was truly a labor of love. I mixed and mixed and mixed with my hands, the mixer, a spoon—but the liquid never transformed into “a soft dough.” I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to turn it out onto a floured surface. But I did. And that’s when the dough made a run for it across the counter.
“Did you start over again?” J asked. I paused. I had never considered that option. I finish what I start. That’s how I ended up with a C+ in Latin my freshman year of college. If only I had dropped that class when my professor said, “I know you’re trying very hard, but I don’t think this language is for you.” But it never occurred to me to give up.
So, approaching hysteria on Sunday afternoon, I tore F from his book and made him cup his hands around the quickly spreading dough as I added handful after handful of flour, kneading and patting the dough, scooping flour until I had added a good cup and a half to the mix, moaning all the while, My challah! My challah!
“I probably should have started over,” I answered J, “But I just added more flour until the dough held together.”
When the dough had finally risen for the second time, I divided it into two equal portions and rolled them into strands for braiding.
The dough was still so soft that the strands melted into each other as I wove them together. I added a few more heaps of flour until the strands rested against each other without melding. I carefully transferred the loaf to a baking pan and brushed with egg. I let it rest for 30 minutes before baking.
“But the bread turned out OK in the end?” J asked.
“Yes." I replied sheepishly, "It’s actually pretty good.”
To my great surprise, the bread turned out beautifully, after all.
“So you saved it! That’s impressive.” J squeezed my shoulder and I smiled self-consciously.
“Did you pat yourself on the back?” J asked.
“Um… no.” I replied.
“You should pat yourself on the back more often.” J said as she took a slice of challah and ambled back to her desk.
As J turned away, I remembered something another J—Julia Child—once said, “The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It's doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry soufflé. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.”Feeling just a little bit silly, I quickly patted myself on the back and smiled.
I’ve got twenty-seven loaves to go!
Fat for greasing
800g / 1 ¾lb strong white flour
10ml / 2tsp sugar
25g / 1oz butter or margarine
Flour for kneading
Beaten egg for glazing
Grease 2 baking sheets. Sift about 75g / 3oz of the four and all the sugar into a large bowl. Measure 400ml / 14fl oz lukewarm water. Blend the fresh yeast into the water or stir in the dried yeast. Pour the yeast liquid into the flour and sugar and beat well. Leave the bowl in a warm place for 20 minutes.
Sift the remaining flour and the salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter or margarine. Beat the eggs into the yeast mixture and stir in the flour mixture. Mix to a soft dough. Turn on to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 6 minutes or until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky. Return to the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume—this will take up to 2 hours, or longer.
Knead the dough again until firm. Cut into 2 equal portions. Cut one of these into 2 equal pieces and roll these into long strands 30-35 cm / 12-14 inches in length. Arrange the 2 strands in a cross on a flat surface. Take the 2 opposite ends of the bottom strand and cross them over the top strand in the center. Repeat this, using the other strand. Cross each strand alternately, building up the plait vertically, until all the dough is used up. Gather the short ends together and pinch firmly. Lay the challah on its side and place on the prepared baking sheet. Brush with beaten egg. Repeat, using the second portion. Cover with lightly oiled polythene. Leave in a warm place for about 30 minutes or until the dough has doubled in volume. Set the oven at 220 degrees C / 425 degrees F / gas 7.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Makes two 1 ¾ lb loaves.