Saturday, August 25, 2007

The I-Don't-Know-How-to-Braid Challah

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."


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

My Challah


evil cake lady said...

that jim is pretty funny.

if ever we are in the same town, i'd be happy to braid your challah for you!

Doughadear said...

I was a bit hesitant about the four strand braid so before I braided the actual bread I practiced with four pieces of rope until I began to see a pattern. The trick to a well braided challah, I think, is to keep the braids tight something I'm still trying to perfect.

Anonymous said...

I do my challah with Rose's recipe and use 3 ropes for the braid. It's much easier than four, I would think. Four ropes reminds me of "french" braiding hair. I was an adult before I learned how to do that to myself and I still can't do it to anyone else. But my daughter is 3... The Stonehenge similarity is hysterical. Love it! Anna

Chai18 said...

the trick is to always braid towards the middle

Anonymous said...

I still haven't tried the 4-strand, but here is a good video for 6-strand.

After I watched it about 6 times I was able to do a fairly decent braid !!
I really enjoy your blog.

Julie said...

Oh, I can't help but laugh at your woes...I actually may have guffawed when I saw that first picture because I am so accustomed to seeing all the beautiful loaves you make, I was sure you were overstating your case. But, no. (I love how the challah looks especially tormented in the last shot). But, the taste is the thing, and I've had plenty of shiny, perfect-on-the-exterior bread that didn't taste like anything. So, you can never tell by perfect braids. Most people (like me) wouldn't be able to get through reading the instructions, so if it tasted good, I think you should count it as a success.

kneadtobake said...

You are the funniest blogger out there,you make me laugh till tears are running down my cheeks. Who cares if your challah is a little less than perfect, it still tasted great, that is all that matters. You could always tell Jim you make your breads to look like sites you have visited in your travels.

breadbasketcase said...

That's so nice of you! But it wouldn't be very neighborly of me to invite you over just to braid my challah. I could show you around Minneapolis, and then you could braid my challah.

It was certainly clever of you to see a potential problem before you started. One of my other ideas (besides the post-it notes) was to practice with Play-Doh. But I can see that using pieces of rope would be even easier.

Chai 18,
You know, I kept telling myself that there must be some pattern, but I just didn't see it. Maybe with practice ropes, and the mantra, "braid toward the middle," I could do it!

Oh, good Lord! Six strands--I'm very impressed that you could do that. The video makes it look quite doable.

When I was writing yesterday, I was thinking how much more fun it is to write when something turns out less than perfect. It's so boring just to say, "made some bread, turned out great."

Now that's a thought. I could come up with something that looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa without half trying.

Chubbypanda said...

All hail the Heelstone!

jini said...

well all i can say is that it's what's inside that counts, and i bet it was delicious!

villanelle said...

If you are interested in photo instruction how to braid a challah please check this link:

It very clear and easy. I made challah several time and braid it with those instructons.

extrastorchy said...

Does the Guinness Book have a "World's Most Flavorful Henge" category? I suggest you check into it.

breadbasketcase said...

That's my new motto.

Well, it was quite good, but it would be nice to have something good-looking as well.

Dziekuje! Who would ever think that you could end up getting good, clear directions for braiding challah in Polish? With all this help, there is no excuse for not turning out a better-looking loaf of challah next time.

They don't seem to--(But they've probably never been asked)!

Melinda said...

Hello Marie! I am back from a fantastic holiday with my sisters on a Mediterranean cruise. Catching up with you now.
Tried the simit bread at Ephesus in Turkey. Loved it. Would have probably not noticed it if you hadn't blogged about the one you did. I think I will try my own too. I didn't see the exotic man carrying them on his head though. They were just in the market kiosks for sale.
Love the challah heel stone looky-likey. Jim has a good eye for similar architectural shapes in bread. Does he cloud shape spot too?
The bread looks delicious. I haven't 4 braided either. So when I get braver and try my hand at challah bread I will be sure to practice with my technique beforehand!
Read the 3 bread post too. I've been meaning to try the Peter Reinhart bread. It sounds tasty!

breadbasketcase said...

Welcome back Melinda! It sounds like a great time. I was going to ask you if my simit tasted authentic, but then I realized you hadn't tasted it.
So why don't you make your simit before you forget what the real thing tastes like, and then you can tell me if yours is authentic. I'll bet you and your sisters are crazy when you get together. Crazy in a good way, I mean.

Anonymous said...

maybe you have to be jewish for the challah to braid right... :-)