A wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away, and the trees stand. I think, I too, have known autumn too long. – e. e. cummings
A day like today. One week after the attacks in Paris, the weather is stormy, the sky a hazy pewter gray, the mist hanging low and clinging to the bare branches of the trees. Sadness. Yet it is cozy inside and as it is now officially low season at the hotel, the reception, the halls are quiet and still. Peaceful. I am laid low by something flulike, the bug that has been dancing back and forth amongst the staff for the past month. But I have decided to get up and work, because I know that when one is laid low, the best way to overcome whatever is clinging to our body and our soul can only be shaken off by movement, work, and activity.
My jam making has been slowing down as we drift between fruit seasons. I’ve made jars and jars of pear jam these past few weeks and just stored away the pear-black currant and the vanilla pear in the jam cupboard. My cookbook proposal is finished and now in the hands of my agent, yet now I am going through my recipes, writing down in black and white what I want to make for the book if it comes to fruition. Friends are offering to test recipes and even create recipes for the book. My time is freer now, so I can get back to my various writing projects as well.
But today… a day like today, blustery and tempestuous outside, snug and tranquil inside, is the kind of day one must bake bread. The pure act of blending, kneading, shaping, baking bread is therapeutic and soothing. The pure act of making loaves of bread takes time and concentration, it allows one’s mind to wander while focusing our physical body and soul on the careful, purposeful measuring and weighing of ingredients, the rhythmic movement of kneading, the sensual delight of shaping the dough. The magic of watching it rise. The pleasure of the finished loaf.
Baking bread is a lot like raising children. It starts from nothing, a blend of a few simple, basic ingredients and love. It is a gentle balance of coddling and kneading, tender pressure mixed with a little force and elbow grease. Press and fold, push and pull as we whisper encouragement, brush the sweat from our brow and try and get the perfect texture, faultless, beyond compare. We do our best to mold it into the desired shape and yet accept its imperfections, patching up its bumps and imperceptibly, gingerly pushing it back as best we can. Then we cover it loosely, just enough to protect it but not so much as to smother it, hinder its growth, then step back, breathe and wait. Wait. Impatiently even as we are oh-so tempted to help it along, knowing that our help just won’t make it go any faster or change the outcome. We watch. Anxiously. Praying that it goes as planned though knowing now that we have done our job, all that we can do, and now can only watch and wait.
We are at once powerless and all-powerful, having followed our own urges and made the decision to create something of beauty, something to please others while really only trying to please ourselves, yet we can only do what is in our power to do for only so long and then what happens happens. We pray that inside our little baby is soft and tender, fragrant and sweet. We hope that outside our little baby is tough enough to hold up to heat and pressure, protect the delicate goodness inside, crusty, golden, delectable. We would like what we have created to be distinctive, enticing, delightful and, yes, palatable. We take that basic recipe and throw in our own personal mix of pizzazz: nuts, earthy, wholesome and toothsome; chocolate chips or fruit, sweetness oh-so sweet; cheese or meat, smoky, powerful, spicy or subtle yet intriguing. And we serve it up, send it out of the kitchen and into the world to be tasted, eaten and judged and wait, wait some more, for smiles to appear all around, nods of appreciation, applause and kudos, asking for more.
Once again, I did not bake along with the Bread Baking Babes although the stunning Russian Chrysanthemum Bread proposed by this month’s host Lien of Lien’s Notes is one I must bake! Do visit her blog to see the bread, discover the recipe, and bake along and earn your Bread Baking Buddy Badge!
I have reached back into my archives and decided to share one of my favorite bread recipes. I have taken my go-to, fabulous, fail-proof Challah recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François and added one of my favorite fruit: cherries. Deep, dark, and sweet with a delicate sourness and pronounced flavor, cherries with a tablespoon or two of tiny chocolate chips will raise the Challah to new heights and take a bread and turn it into dessert. A touch of maple syrup, the crunch of slivered almonds and the bread is complete.
- 1 ¾ cups (300 ml) lukewarm water
- 1 ½ Tbs (18 g) active dry yeast
- 1 ½ Tbs (30 g) Kosher or table salt
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- ½ cup (120 ml) honey (or ¼ cup honey + ¼ cup maple syrup)
- ½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter (or neutral-tasting vegetable oil)
- 7 cups (scant kilo) flour
- Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 Tbs water)
- Poppy or sesame seeds for the top, optional
- 3.5 – 7 oz (100 – 200 g) fresh cherries, stems removed, cherries pitted and sliced in half
- 2 Tbs mini chocolate chips
- Replace the poppy or sesame seeds with 1 Tbs slivered almonds
- 1 Tbs maple syrup for brushing the Challah, optional
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the yeast, salt, eggs, honey, maple syrup (if using) and melted butter (warm, not hot) with the water. Stir in the flour without kneading, using a wooden spoon, a food processor or stand mixer. I used the spoon.
- Stir and fold just until all of the flour is blended into the wet ingredients and is moist. Cover with plastic wrap (not airtight) and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 hours. The dough should rise then collapse. It may take a little longer depending upon outside conditions.
- The dough can now be used but I place the dough in the refrigerator overnight. This allows it to finish rising and become very light; the dough is much easier to work with when chilled.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator, dust the surface of the dough, your hands and your dough scraper all with flour, keeping extra flour handy, and scrape the dough down the sides of the bowl. The dough will sink and flatten. Dipping your hands and the dough scraper in flour as needed (the dough is sticky) break off one 1-pound (500 g) piece of dough for each Challah you would like to make and place on a well-floured work surface. Dust the dough with more flour and shape it into a ball.
- Flatten one ball of dough into a wide disc on a floured surface and press in about half of the cherries and chocolate chips which have been placed evenly over the surface. Roll up the dough and knead quickly. Flatten the dough once again into a disc and place the rest of the cherries and chocolate chips over the surface as best as possible, fold or roll up again and knead until the fruit seems well ensconced in the dough. Divide the ball of dough into 3 equal pieces and, using your hands, form each piece into a long, thin rope (remember making Play-doh snakes? Same thing: roll between your hands with the rope hanging down and roll back and forth on the table, pulling and squeezing gently as need be.) If the dough resists shaping just let the pieces rest for about 5 minutes and try again. Some of the cherries may slip out and this is okay. The cherries will make the dough a bit wet and rather stickier than normal but just keep working.
- Place the ropes of dough lengthwise on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Braid the ropes starting from the middle and working towards one end, tucking the ends underneath the braided dough, then turning the baking sheet and braiding the other half down from the middle to the end, again tucking the ends underneath.
- Allow the dough to rest and rise covered loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel for 1 hour and 20 minutes (only 40 minutes if using freshly made, unrefrigerated dough).
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
- Brush the loaf with the egg wash. Sprinkle slivered almonds all over the surface. Bake the loaf or loaves for about 25 to 30 minutes until risen and uniformly golden brown. The braids near the center will offer resistance to pressure and the bottom of the loaf will be golden.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven to a cooling rack, stovetop or wooden cutting board and allow to cool until tepid. Brush and dab the surface of the loaf all over with maple syrup. Allow to cool completely before carefully slicing and eating