Challah’s the bread I know best. I’ve been making it longer than any other bread, and I’ve made it more often than any other. I’ve tried several recipes, but hadn’t yet tried the one in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, so I was pretty excited for this particular challenge. What if I found a recipe that was even better than my old tried-and-true? That thought actually made me a little apprehensive. What if I’d had the ability to make an even better challah and I hadn’t known it?
For this recipe, I decided to put my old recipe to the challenge. I’d bake both recipes, on the same day.
My recipe is from the little-known Second Helpings Please, put out by the Mt. Sinai Chapter (#1091 – Montreal) of the Jewish Women International of Canada. I don’t know when my family first got a copy of this book, but I remember always having it around. We reached for it during the holidays for its matzoh ball and gefilte fish recipes, and we giggled at its “hints” at the beginning of each chapter (“Find a crack in your favorite dish? If it’s not too deep, you may be able to make it invisible by boiling the dish on low heat for about an hour in sweet milk.”). As I thumb through it now, just the names of the recipes bring back strong memories of the smells coming out of my grandmother’s kitchen: kugels, kreplach, mandel bread, flanken, and those ever-present little meatballs.
I’m not sure what led me to the challah recipe (spelled “chalah” in SH), but as I look at the book now, I see that the recipe is on the very first page of the “Breads and Rolls” chapter. I had started making bread just a year or two before I discovered this recipe, so I imagine I reached for the cookbook, turned to the bread chapter, and settled on the first recipe I saw. Ever since, this bread has been a staple in my family.
I make it for every holiday (well, not Pesach); I make it when someone I know is sick; I make it when it’s cold and dreary outside and I want something warm and comfortable; I make it on a warm, sticky day because I know the dough will rise beautifully; I make it when we have fresh honey in the house for drizzling; I make it when my daughter begs for it. Lately I’ve been making it when our friend, Jean, hands me a half-dozen fresh duck eggs from her farm (duck egg yolks are huge and they make a wonderful, rich bread even richer).
And now, I was making it to put it to the test: to see how it stood up against the extensive testing and bread knowledge contained in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
For this challenge, I used all the same ingredients for both loaves: the same bag of flour, the same carton of local eggs, the same safflower oil, the same kosher salt, and the same instant yeast. Since I made the loaves on the same day, they were subject to the exact same conditions: humidity, fermentation temperatures, oven temperatures, etc. The only differences were in the exact steps and proportions of the recipe (for example, the SH recipe has a bit more sugar than PR’s recipe) and a slight time delay in that I had to start one loaf before I could start the next (seeing as I have only the two hands and the one oven).
This process led to two changes to my standard recipe: first, I used King Arthur bread flour for both recipes (I usually use KA all-purpose flour, but since the PR recipe called for bread flour, I used it in both recipes); second, though I normally do a three-strand braid for my recipe, I decided to try a six-strand braid for both loaves (thanks to this incredibly helpful YouTube video, the six-strand braid is now completely comprehensible!).
The result? I still love my recipe best.
As you can see, the PR recipe (front) is all-around a fluffier loaf. The dough itself rose beautifully, and then there was that tremendous oven spring (oof!). It’s a gorgeous loaf, but it lacks the depth of color of the SH loaf (rear) because it has an egg-white wash rather than an egg-yolk wash.
The fluffiness was even more obvious once we sliced the loaves and tasted it. You can see the more open crumb here of the PR loaf:
And the tighter, denser crumb of the SH loaf:
The taste? I have to say we really loved the PR loaf, but it didn’t taste a bit like challah to us. It tasted more like Italian Scali bread (discussed recently on the King Arthur Flour blog). It didn’t taste like the SH challah, and it didn’t taste like any of the other challahs I’d eaten and loved in my childhood, but it was delicious. It made wonderful toast smeared with butter, and made delicious sandwiches, and we had no trouble polishing off half a loaf in just a couple of days (I cut both loaves in half and froze half of each so we wouldn’t explode by eating it all in one week).
I’d definitely make this bread again. It may even be my favorite recipe so far in the BBA (except for l’ancienne, of course), but it’s sure not going to take the place of my old challah recipe. I’m relieved.