baking with henry

by bam

it is friday, a friday. it will soon be shabbat. it is time for baking with henry. henry and i bake challah together. henry is my teacher.

henry lives downtown. in a tall black building.

i live in a leafy little town 12 miles north. in a stone-and-shingle, two-story house.

we bake over the phone.

henry is jewish. i am catholic.

henry is a grandfather; he talks about growing up in germany, before the nazis erupted. every friday night, he tells me, stewed chicken or brisket main-staged the meal; the challah, his mother’s opening act.

challah, the braided egg bread that is the sustenance of shabbat, the sacred canyon of time stretching from sundown friday to sundown on saturday, marking, each week, the seventh-day rest at the end of God’s original creation.

i am a mother, a wife, married to a fine jewish man. we have two boys, growing up jewish and catholic. together, we lift up shabbat, wrap up our harried work week with the pause and the majesty of blessing bread, blessing time, at our table.

i have, over the years, made shabbat mine. i sink into the rhythms of friday, sink into the rhythms of unfolding shabbat. i slow cook on fridays. i pick and choose from the book shelf, finding a passage worth reading, a thought worth shabbat. i put out the candles. i bring out the wine. i reach for the yarmulkes, or little skull caps.

and, after years of wishing i could, i now bake for shabbat.

henry is sifting through my lumps, leavening my learning. henry is teaching me challah.

he came to me in an email, with story attached.

last year, typing away on a 10-year anniversary book for our synagogue, i culled recipes for a few trademark foods. the rabbi’s brisket. his wife’s gefilte fish. henry’s challah.

with recipe in hand, i decided i had no excuse not to roll up my sleeves and insert fist into flour. i did what henry had written. thoroughly blended all dry ingredients; added oil, eggs, water. kneaded for 5, then for 10, finally upward of 15 minutes, in search of the elusive dough state, “moist and elastic.”

it was then that i made my first call to henry.

add water, just one little drib at a time, he advised.

i followed orders.

place dough in warm spot to rise. about 1 hour, he had written.

two hours later, accidentally out longer than planned, i came home to dough that had let out its air.

i put in a second call to henry.

that night, we broke bread but it was more like we were breaking a flat-shelled turtle. this was challah without the rise. this was challah gone flat.

henry called the next morning. he was with me now, and wanted the word on what in the end had come out of the oven.
and so it went, week after week.

i progressed. sort of a reptilian progression. one week a turtle, the next week an alligator. it would be weeks before the soft twisted mounds looked anything like the challah in the bakery windows.

and then my kitchen was demolished. so all baking stopped. but it is a new year, and a new kitchen.

so henry and i begin baking again.

the flour is measured and dumped. the yeast, quick-rising, mixed in. i know how to knead. i know that one hour’s rise, not two, and not three, is essential.

best of all, i know henry’s number, even in florida.

stay tuned for the reptilian report.

all right, all you bakers. anyone willing to go on record with a tried-and-true challah tale? pictures to come, if you promise not to laugh…

Henry’s Berches Challah Recipe
Makes 1loaf
_ 1 Pkg Instant Yeast*
_ 3 cups Unbleached Flour
_ 1 TBS Sugar
_ 2 tspn Salt
_ 5 oz. +/- Warm water
_ 1 TBS Vegetable Oil
1 Egg white (save yolk for egg wash)
* simplifies and speeds baking

_ Toppings
_ To taste: Poppy seed, Sesame seed, Kosher salt, etc.
_ Thoroughly blend all dry ingredients in a large mixing
bowl. Add oil, egg whites, and water. Mix thoroughly using
an electric mixer with paddle attachment (or hands) until
dough forms. Get dough as smooth as possible in mixer.

Remove from bowl and knead a bit more by hand until silky smooth. If
dough sticks to hands, add a bit more flour; if dough is too dry,
add a little more oil for elasticity. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes.
Dough should be moist and elastic.
_ Place dough in oiled, covered bowl, in a warm spot, to rise.
_ About 1 hour. Gently deflate dough and divide into 3 lots.
Roll each lot into a rope, about 10 inches log, and braid to form the finished loaf.

Place on lightly oiled baking sheet for a
second rise, (or use a parchment paper lined sheet, which makes for less clean up) until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
_ Brush loaf with beaten egg yolk (beat yolk with 1 tspn water),
paint top and sides of loaves, and sprinkle with
_ favorite topping: poppy seed, sesame seed, kosher salt etc.

_ Place in oven until browning begins. Lower temperature to
350 degrees and continue baking until golden brown and
loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It is best, though, to use an instant read thermometer and bake to 190 degrees internal.

If loaf brown too quickly during baking, tent with aluminum foil.

Baking time about 30 minutes. Cool on rack.

after i struggled with this version, henry sent a tutorial, titled, “challah, one step at a time.” i’ll send–or post later–if you, too, need henry over your shoulder.