Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holiday Breads I: Challah


Challah eggs I confess that sometimes I forget I have a blog, and by the time I remember, I’ve made something nice, and it’s already done, and there are no in-progress photos. So I skip it as a subject for the blog.

This time, though, is different. Everyone should know how to make a good, impressive—and very easy—bread for the holiday table. Something simpler and less expensive than, say, a great stollen or panettone (which, shockingly, some people don’t like). So even though I forgot to take photos, it’s that time of year and you may need or want this recipe for challah. I’ll do my best at directions for the braiding. (I also made another bread today, but had already frozen it and only had a half-eaten slice with butter on it to photograph . . . too questionable even by my low standards for what constitutes food worth looking at.)

Why all the breads? Aside from the fact that I love bread, of course? My department is having a holiday pot luck lunch this week, and my contribution is a bread basket. There will be a wonderful New England 100% whole wheat brown bread with raisins and nuts—the one already in the freezer; a huge fougasse in the shape of a Christmas tree; my buttermilk dinner rolls to satisfy the Southerners; some cornmeal crackers; a few loaves of French bread made with poolish and a little whole wheat; and this challah. I have also been pressed to bring one of last year’s contributions again, the ever-versatile and vibrant apricot chutney.

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread served at holidays in various shapes, most notably braided, but also wound into a smart turban or little knotted rolls. My father used to call it Jewish egg bread when I was little, and that about describes it. It is eggy, but contains less egg, butter, and sugar than many enriched doughs, giving it a finer texture and making it suitable for sandwiches, French toast, and eating with butter. Unlike some of its more decorated cousins, it falls squarely into the bread rather than the dessert category. This is, I think, why most people like it. While I am a totally egalitarian bread eater, welcoming all comers, I am very fond of challah. It makes a great ham sandwich. Ironic, I know.


One of the easiest ways to impress your boyfriend’s mother, or make her fear you will replace her. Freeze the whites for later use. Makes 1 huge loaf.

1 package dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
¼ cup warm water

4 ½ cups bread flour, more if needed
2 tea salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup lukewarm water

1 large egg yolk
poppy seeds

Sprinkle the sugar and yeast into the ¼ cup water, stir, and set aside for a few minutes. Butter a half-sheet pan.

Beat the eggs and 1 egg yolk with the butter. Sift the flour and salt into the yeast mixture. Add the egg-butter mixture and the cup of water. Mix until blended and turn out onto a floured board. Knead until smooth, incorporating a little more flour if needed, about 6 or 7 minutes.

Place into a large greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap to rise until double, about an hour. Punch down and let rise again, about another hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Divide the dough into two pieces, one about 1/3 of the dough, one about 2/3. Set the smaller piece aside, covered. Pat the larger piece out to about 12 inches and cut it into thirds lengthwise, and roll the pieces into ropes with slightly tapered ends. Place them parallel to each other, an inch or so apart, then join them at the top, tucking under the ends. Braid, crossing from left over the center, then right over the left (now in the center) and so on, always crossing alternate sides over the piece that lands in the center. Pull the ends together at the bottom and tuck under. You can do the braiding on the counter and transfer it to the buttered baking sheet, or do it directly on the sheet.

Repeat the braiding procedure with the smaller piece. Make a slight indentation down the length of the braid on the sheet, and brush with water. Place the smaller braid firmly on top, integrating the ends. Mix the final egg yolk with a few drops of water; brush the bread gently all over and sprinkle lightly with poppy seeds. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 45-50 minutes, until it is a lovely mahogany color and is firm at the intersections of the braids. Remove to a rack to cool.


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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Egg Noodles


You’ve all heard about my Pennsylvania German grandmother, who, as the song Billy Boy goes, could “bake a cherry pie quick as a cat can blink her eye.” It is hard not to think of her at this time of year, or anytime, really, when cooking or digging into a whole lot of traditional but high-quality food.

Beyond the endless baking and holiday foods, one thing I always associate with my grandmother is egg noodles—with gravy. This is what we usually had growing up as an accompaniment to goulash (meat stew) or pot roast. The pot roast or goulash had lots of rich, beefy, tomato-tinged gravy that would be ladled out of the pot onto the noodles. It was great with the meat. But what I really loved was the next day, when the meat was all gone, but there was leftover gravy, and you could have a meal of the noodles and gravy all alone. This held true for leftover gravy from a chicken or, of course, turkey. You see where I’m going.

I will not be cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, or any part of it. I tried to calculate back how long it has been since I’ve not prepared the entire Thanksgiving meal or, on the rare occasion, a major contribution to it. I think it is 30 years.

So I am not going to have turkey gravy. But you probably will, and I encourage you to have some of it over some tender egg noodles. And even though I won’t have gravy, I do have some excellent chicken stock in the freezer. So when I saw some homemade egg noodles at the farmer’s market, made by a Tennessee Amish community, I bought them, partly from wonder that they existed here. Who knew? Apparently, the Amish have been migrating from strongholds like Pennsylvania to the South, with Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Texas among their final destinations. Seeing their stand of baked goods, eggs, butter, and these noodles at the farmer’s market was like seeing a mini version of my beloved Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. And of course, reminded me of my grandmother’s food.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I made some of these noodles for my dinner last night, very plain. Instead of thickening with flour into a gravy, I just made a light sauce by caramelizing some onions and reducing good homemade stock down until it thickened a bit. Not like good gravy, but good.

Noodles and apples go nicely together. I happened to have some gravensteins and a local variety, Arkansas Black, on hand, and made some apple sauce and a crisp with the extras—a fitting dessert for the plain noodles. Grandma would have approved.

Egg Noodles with Onion Sauce OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These noodles were about the size of fettucine. For true noodles and gravy, I like a broad egg noodle. Two reliable brands are Mueller’s and Pennsylvania Dutch. Of course, you can make your own, too. Just cook til tender, and pour the hot gravy over.

For a lighter facsimile:

Heat until bubbling 1 tea olive oil and 1 T butter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Slice thin ½ medium-large sweet onion and sauté over medium-high heat til they brown a little and turn golden, and are about half-cooked. Season with salt, pepper, and a little freshly grated nutmeg.

Add ¼ cup good homemade chicken stock, reduce heat to medium and cook til most of it is absorbed. Repeat twice more (another ½ cup), each time reducing a little less, then add a final ¼ cup stock, for a total of 1 cup, reducing just a little; you should have enough sauce to toss with 6-7 oz of noodles, or for two servings. Garnish with chopped parsley.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Red Poblanos: The Perfect Heat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         It’s late fall, when the end of the growing season often brings some nice surprises, especially after a disappointing summer of rain and sorry produce. One discovery a few weeks ago was these beautiful red poblanos, brilliant and shiny. Poblanos are already a favorite of mine, in frequent use around my house for a staple in my house, chiles rellenos (recipe to come, I promise), or for making one of my favorite burgers or this simple first course of cornmeal-dusted sautéed peppers.

The red poblano is both a little sweeter and a little hotter than the green, which among all the chiles is relatively mild. It retains a distinctive poblano taste, however, and was satisfying and very pretty for chiles rellenos. Once roasted, however, they looked so much like any other roasted red pepper that I began thinking about what else to do with them.

As many of you know, I spend the academic year in Nashville. The South is a generation behind; this is not a criticism, just a fact. What is available here, and what people like, is reminiscent of the East Coast in the early 1960s. One of those things that people like is pimiento cheese. Now, we didn’t have that growing up, but we did have various kinds of cheese spreads, like WisPride®. Pimento cheese is a little bit like that, and everybody here just loves it. They sell it in the supermarkets—which are, regrettably, like ours were 30 years ago—in big tubs. Of course you don’t want that. But a homemade pimento cheese can be a very nice, even addictive, thing.

When friends from Rhode Island were visiting last month, I made some pimento cheese and some roasted pecans to give them a taste of the South. My girlfriend said, with a note of horror and shock that I would serve such a thing, “it looks like CheezWhiz®.”I told her it was good and, out of politeness or hunger, she tried it. She ate it right up.

Anyway, I used some of these peppers to make a batch of pimento cheese. Their natural heat negated the need for Tabasco and cayenne, standard ingredient when using regular roasted peppers. I can be quite content eating pimento cheese and crackers, accompanied by a cold beer, for my dinner when I get back late from teaching an evening class. A little Southern comfort, far from home.

Poblano Pimento Cheese

Pimento cheese is a subject of fierce debate in the South, like jonnycakes (thick or thin?) or chowder in Rhode Island. Serve only with 60s-era crackers: Ritz™, or my personal favorite, Club™. Or in celery, also very 60s. Southerners eat pimento cheese sandwiches, on white bread. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

Since red ripe poblanos may be difficult to find, I provide alternate instructions for using roasted red bell peppers. This is a loose interpretation of a recipe from a nice Southern cookbook, Martha Hall Foose’s Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. You may be tempted to use a food processor. Don’t.

8 oz. very sharp yellow cheddarOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1/3 cup, scant, mayonnaise (Hellman’s or homemade)
1 ½ medium red ripe poblanos, roasted and peeled (or 2-3 oz. jarred or home-prepared roasted peppers/pimientos)
½ tea dry mustard
¼ tea dried sage
½ tea Worcestershire sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

If using regular peppers, also add:

1/8 tea ground cayenne pepper
Tabasco to taste

In a small bowl, mix the mayo, mustard, sage, Worcestershire and, if using standard peppers, the cayenne. Grate the cheese on the largest holes of a box grater and add, mixing.

Using the tines of a good fork, mash the peppers on a board until they are a small, dicey mush. Add them to the cheese/mayo mixture and whisk around with the fork. Season with salt, pepper (and if needed, Tabasco) to taste. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours to let the flavors meld. Take out about 10 minutes before serving.