A blog of hopeful, inspired living: cooking & baking & growing & harvesting & preserving & gleaning & eating & sharing food... while bringing positive change to my kitchen and our food system.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Shout Out for Hallah!

It's been raining for a week straight.  Every once in a while the sun comes out for 5 minutes.  The ground in the garden is totally saturated, with parts flooded.  The creek next to my office has become a river, with whole trees rolling by.  Land slides, mud slides, wind and fallen trees punctuate the news, with Big Sur (one of our favorite ocean-side destinations) blocked indefinitely because of collapsed highway.  I really needed a kitchen project to lighten the mood and the week.  Bread came to mind.

When I was in college I started a bread baking business, Eron's Incredible Breadables.  It was a bread CSA -- if you wanted bread, you paid for 4 loaves of bread (one each week for a month) in advance.  Then I'd make the bread and deliver it, often hot from the oven, around campus.

Sun and Rain bread is a recipe I learned at that time that remains dear to my heart.  It started as a recipe from Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible:  one golden-colored dough made with corn meal specked with orange zest braided together with a dough of buckwheat flour and baked.  The beautiful contrast of the sunny and gray doughs, as well as the different flavors make this an exceptional bread.  I've made Rain and Sun to celebrate the Jewish New Year, for birthdays... and just for kicks on rainy days when I need something metaphorical to remember that the rain and sun are all part of the yin and yang.  Today was one of those days.  And it was also Friday -- the day that Hallah is traditionally shared for the Sabbath. 

When I moved out to the Bay Area I got in contact with Freda Reider, the mother of my step-mom's brother in-law.   What a blessing to have the round-about connection and meet Freda.  She is a force to be reckoned with -- artist, jewelery maker, beader, poet, sculptor, weaver, baker, historian, mother, grandmother...an incredible woman.  She had long been baking hallah when she became interested in the history and traditions behind this baking.  Her book, The Hallah Book: Recipes, History and Traditions, published in 1987, tells the 3,000 year history of hallah, while providing phenomenal and unique hallah recipes and twenty-eight ways to form and braid the doughs.  Recipes such as Honeyed Barley Hallah and Figs in Hallah just can't be found in other bread cookbooks.  And the stories, traditions, symbolism and directions are beautiful.  Freda graciously gave me permission to share the recipes I used today when I made a new version of Rain and Sun: a seven strand braid of two of her doughs: Saffron Hallah and Carob with Sunflower Seed Hallah.   She writes about connecting to Jewish roots, but anyone can love the writing, history and... absolutely delicious recipes! 

Each recipe below uses the same directions, which follow.  Further below, my adaptations.   

Carob with Sunflower Seeds Hallah
2 cups water -- 1 1/2 boiling, 1/2 cold
1/3 cup walnut oil 
1/3 cup honey
2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon dry, granulated yeast
3 beaten eggs
1/2 cup soy flour
6-7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup processed carob, cut into small bits*
1/2 cup toasted, chopped sunflower seeds*
*Add to dough before shaping it into a hallah form

Saffron Hallah
2 cups water -- 1 1/2 boiling, 1/2 cup cold saffron essence (Steep 1/4 teaspoon finely crushed saffron threads in 1/2 cup boiling water for 10 minutes, then cool.)
1/3 cup walnut oil
3 Tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon dry, granulated yeast
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup oat flour
5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts*
*Add to dough before shaping it into a hallah form

To make the dough:
Place the first six ingredients in a four-quart mixing bowl in the order listed above. Note that the yeast is added fifth to the mixture, at the point when the temperature is ideal for starting the fermentation process, 95- 115 degrees.  Using a large wooden spoon, stir the flour into the liquid, a cup at a time, sweeping in a wide circle around the bowl until the flour is fully and evenly dispersed.  Keep adding flour, mixing and blending, until the dough begins to ball up and leave the sides of the bowl. 

Scrape the sticky dough from around the bowl and gather it into a ball.  Sprinkle flour sparingly over and under the dough and proceed to knead.  Knead the dough in the bowl.  Fold the dough toward you with the palm of your hand: then push firmly down with your fist into the dough's center.  As you knead, keep the bowl and dough slowly rotating, always working for a ball-like form.  It is not necessary to be vigorous and harsh in kneading dough.  Just be firm and gentle with it!  Whenever dough or hands become sticky, sprinkle them slightly with more flour.  Don't add too much flour or the result will be a dry, crumbly, heavy hallah.  Knead for approximately ten minutes or until dough feels smooth and velvety.

While you are kneading the dough realize that you are at that moment symbolically connected to your entire ancestral heritage, which goes back 5,000 years; back to the seeds of its origin.  Consider kneading an act that now links you the the continuous life of a traditional worldwide Jewish community.

After the ten minutes, turn the ball of dough over with the folded kneaded seams at the bottom and a smooth surface on top.

Cover the dough with a clean dry dish-towel and allow it to rise until double in bulk.  Deflate it then by pushing your fist deep into the center.  Gather the edges of dough from the bowl and place it on a floured wooden board and allow it to rest uncovered for about ten minutes. 

The dough is now ready to be shaped into any desired hallah form.  You may also add raisins, nuts, seeds, etc. 

After the hallah has been formed, place it on an oiled and floured baking pan or on a cookie sheet.  Cover and allow to rise for the third and final time, again until it approximately doubles in size.

Before putting the bread in the oven, glaze and embellish it.

Place the hallah in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake it for about forty-five minutes.  A finished bread will appear firm and crusty on the outside and will ring a hollow sound when tapped on its flat bottom.

Cool on a baking rack. 

My adaptations:
I halved each recipe because I wanted the sun and rain marbled effect. Once ready to form, I braided the two doughs together into one, seven-strand loaf.  The carob dough was heavier, so this worked well for dividing into 7 parts.

In my adaptation, I wanted one dough to be really dark, so I substituted a good quality cocoa powder (I would have used powdered carob if I had it) for the carob pieces -- but half the amount.  I also did not have the soy flour called for in the Carob recipe, nor the oat flour called for in the Saffron recipe.  I substituted barley flour in both.  I love barley flour -- I think it makes a silky texture when used with all-purpose flour and worked well here.  I eliminated the walnuts from the Saffron recipe.  I used olive oil instead of walnut oil.

A highlight for me was the saffron.  I really enjoy the distinct, unusual, exotic flavor of saffron.  I was excited to use Jiloca Spanish saffron I purchased in Italy while at Slow Food International's Terra Madre Conference last October.  The amount called for in the recipe leaves the bread with plenty of distinguishing saffron flavor without being overpowering.  The nuttiness of the Carob recipe balances this well, too. 

A note about kneading: I recommend kneading your bread dough by hand, as Freda explains.  It takes practice, but kneading by hand taught me to identify the dough's stages of development.  There's science happening there!  Kneading creates gluten, which gives the dough its elasticity and allows it to work properly with the yeast to make bread its optimal texture.   How do you know when the dough is ready?  It should no longer be sticky or floppy.  It should feel like your earlobe (go ahead, squeeze your earlobe).  I work with lots of people who have never cooked or baked before and I understand the need to make things really simple some times.  In this case, kneading by hand is the simplest way to go.  It just takes some elbow grease and practice.  I have to admit, this time I kneaded one dough by hand while the other was being kneaded in my Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with the dough hook.  I was paying careful attention to both, and only recommend the Kitchen Aid for those familiar with baking bread already, and only for times when you really really really don't feel like kneading by hand.  I like Freda's comment that kneading by hand connects us with history:  no matter what culture you come from, chances are there was some tradition in your history that required kneading dough.

Freda's book has excellent directions and diagrams for braiding and shaping the dough.  Online, I couldn't find a seven-strand demonstration to share with you, but here's a good start to other techniques, up to six strands and other shapes (I still highly recommend the book above all else!).

I glazed the dough with one beaten egg yoke mixed with two teaspoons of water.  During the baking process my loaf turned into a massive (and moist, delicious) hallah, that very well could have been two loaves.  As I watched it grow in the oven, I couldn't help laugh: it was unstoppable!  It measured 16" long by almost 10" wide and 6" tall in the center... and if my kitchen scale hadn't stopped working, I'm sure it would have weighed in at nearly three pounds.

Bread pudding
In addition to eating it while it was still hot from the oven and in hunks throughout the day, this bread made fabulous French toast, cut in thick slices.  It was also lovely as regular toast topped with butter and marmalade.   There are plans to move on to bread pudding next. Using the hallah a few days later as bread pudding is also aaammmaaazzzinggg.   Other ideas are welcome.

Break bread in good company!  Enjoy!

ready for toasting and marmalade

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