Saturday, August 25, 2007
When Sarah was a little girl, she asked me to braid her hair. I did, and she was satisfied, but when I saw pictures of her in braids, I realized that I did a sadly inadequate job. I missed big tufts of hair, and I tied the rubber bands around the ends so loosely that the braids got very saggy. I also failed to make a nice, neat part. When Elizabeth asked me to braid her hair, I was no better. She took one look at herself in the mirror and said, with a look of combined pity and scorn, "I think I'll just do it myself."
I remembered this when I was braiding my challah. I saw a lovely loaf of challah in a bakery a few weeks ago, and that reminded me that it was about time to try it again. Challah was the last bread I made in my 82-bread challenge of 2006. That version got pretty saggy too, but it didn't occur to me at the time that the less-than-picture-perfect outcome might have something to do with my braiding technique. I remembered that Rose had a recipe on her web site for a challah that she considered superior even to the one in The Bread Bible, although that one was quite good (if not especially lovely to look at). So I found the recipe, My New Favorite Challah, and started in early this morning. This recipe is quite similar to the one in TBB, except that it has about 85 grams of sourdough starter in it.
Everything was going swimmingly until I started to braid. The abbreviated instructions on the web site just said to divide the dough into four strands and braid them. Hmm, I said to myself, I don't remember ever braiding four things together, but, undismayed, I got down The Bread Bible, which has a nice diagram for four-strand challah.
First, pinch all four ropes together. Then "slip 1 under 2 and 3 and cross 1 over 3." Huh? Okay, I guess I get that. "Slip 4 under both 3 and 1 and cross it over 1." But 1 is no longer 1, it's 2. And 4 is 3. "Slip 2 under both 1 and 4 and cross it over 4. Slip 3 under 4 and 2, and cross it over 2." Are you beginning to see my problem? By this time, I was less than half way through the braiding, and I no longer had any idea what strand was which number. I thought maybe I could just fake it, but strands 3 and 4, which may actually have been 1 and 2, went off on their own. Also, I was no longer in a cheerful mood.
What I should have done (maybe) was to put small post-it notes on each strand, so I'd know the numbers, and I may try that sometime, but today what I did was to give up on the four strands, put them back together in a lump, and separate them into three strands. This I could do. Or so I thought.
The dough was a little the worse for wear, and one of my strands fell apart mid-braid. I swore. I was not at all cheerful. But I persevered and I ended up with something that might pass as a braided loaf, if you had very poor vision and weren't wearing your glasses. I brushed it with egg yolk, getting all the crevices, as Rose instructs, and covered it with plastic wrap. After an hour, it had risen pretty well, and except for the one strand that fell apart, it actually didn't look too bad. As I pulled the plastic wrap off, I remembered that I had forgotten to oil it. As you might not be surprised to hear, most of the top layer of the bread stuck to the wrap. At this point, it looked like only a big blob of dough with little points sticking up from where the plastic had pulled.
Jim asked me if I wanted pictures. I said, "Oh, sure, why not."
WHAT NOT TO DO
But look! If you only see the sliced bread, it's quite pretty. It could pass as a success. And, even though I messed around with the dough for too long, the bread turned out to be quite delicious. I think it's my new favorite challah, too, and who knows? Maybe one day it will actually look like challah.
And now I must humor Jim, who saw another architectural parallel:
"Heelstone" at Stonehenge