Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Umut's First Guest Post - Braided Bread

As you'll remember from Sunday's Shout Outs, Josh and I spent this past weekend in New York and I didn't cook much last week that was worth blogging about.  I've asked our good friend Umut to do several guest posts over the next few days and this Braided Bread is her first.  Umut, take it away. . .

My love affair with braided bread loaves dates back to my childhood in Istanbul. When I was in elementary school, there was a tiny little bakery about two blocks from my school, where two elderly twin brothers made the world’s most awesome savory and sweet treats. Every year, during the week of Easter they made this braided egg bread that was just delightful. Jewish people make a braided egg bread, too, called “Challah Bread” that is similar to what I grew up with. I love the shape of this bread, but I wanted to see if it could be made from a classic whole-wheat dough, instead of a recipe heavy with eggs and fat. The result was pleasantly surprising. It made a big and thick loaf that looked nice but also fluffy enough to break apart easily.

Braided Bread

Ingredients
2 cups water
½ cup honey
1 Tablespoon (or packet) active dry yeast
1 Tablespoon salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil
6 cups whole-wheat flour

Preparation
Boil two cups of water and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add honey and wait for the water to cool down to between 100F and 110F degrees. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can gauge the temperature by trying some on your wrist. If it doesn’t feel hot, it’s time to add the yeast. It’s always good to wait about five minutes after dissolving the yeast to “proof” it. If the yeast is frothing and showing some bubbles, that means it’s active and you can continue with the recipe.

Add the salt and the oil; then start adding the flour one cup at a time. The first two cups of flour will mix easily with a large (preferably wooden) spoon, but you want to start stirring really well by the third cup. The fourth cup of flour will start to make the dough pretty heavy but keep stirring until you get a fairly elastic dough. The fifth cup will make the dough pretty stiff.

At this point, take the remaining cup of flour and sprinkle half of it on a kneading board or your countertop. Dump the stiff dough out of the bowl on to your floured surface and start kneading. Kneading can be messy, but what’s a little flour on your kitchen floor? With floured hands, fold dough toward you then push away firmly with the heel of your hand. Keep turning the dough and repeating this process as you work in the last half cup of the flour, for about 6 to 8 minutes. Kneading is finished when the dough is no longer sticky and is smooth and satiny.

Rinse your mixing bowl and grease it with a little olive oil. Put the dough in the bowl and cover it with a damp kitchen towel. Find the coziest place (about 80F degrees) in your kitchen and put the bowl there and forget about it for about 1 ½ to 2 hours. When you come back from doing other fun things, the dough should have risen to almost double in size. A great way to test this is by sticking two fingers into the dough. If the indentation remains, it’s time to shape the dough.

Punch down the dough and squeeze out as many of the air bubbles as you can. Then take a sharp knife and divide the dough into three equal portions. On a floured board with floured hands, start rolling the three dough balls into strands. You don’t want to get the strands too long and thin, but they do need to be longer than the length of your cookie sheet you’ll be using. (If you’ve braided hair before, you know that the braid will be shorter than the original length of the hair.)

Grease your cookie sheet and sprinkle a handful of cornmeal. Gently pick up the strands of dough and place them on the cookie sheet, with the excess dough hanging off the sides at first. Start braiding the three strands, as you get to the end, you’ll be able to pick up the slacking dough and braid that as well. Fold and tuck in the two ends of the dough when you’re done. Place a damp kitchen towel over the cookie sheet and let the shaped loaf rise again for another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425F degrees. Bake the loaf for 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow. Serve with butter and/or favorite jam!

Adapted from “A Short Course with King Arthur Flour in Baking with Yeast”

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