Sunday, September 23, 2012

Growing things

About ten days ago, I took a workshop on how to make challah.  Ever since, I have been trying to make one successfully.

When I was in kindergarten, my little sister went to a Jewish nursery school, and every Friday they made challah.  She would come home with a hard twist of carbs, and, even though my parents laughed at it as not real challah, I thought it tasted good.

I have been living my sister's legacy this past week.

I get everything about the form right.  I braid a gorgeous round challah.  I roll the raisins inside so they don't burn.  I use a glaze of egg, cinnamon, and sugar. If it could be a sculpture, it would be perfect.

My realization yesterday (I am on my fifth and sixth loaves) is that I need to not think that I am making bread but that I am raising yeast.  Like my plants, which I examine carefully, making sure they are getting the right combination of light and, well, no water, I have to think of this as an exercise in growing something.

To grow, yeast apparently requires:

  • Proofing.  I wince as I say that.  What a weird use of that word, but apparently it is something people say.  My recipe didn't have instructions about it, but yesterday I combined yeast, sugar, and water warmed with meat-thermometer accuracy and watched the slurry bubble.
  • No drafts.  There is also something about covering it with plastic wrap.  My immediate thought is that there was no plastic wrap in the shtetl, followed by a thought that if you cover it tightly the yeast will ferment anaerobically, and that can't be good.  Apparently in the shtetl they used a damp cloth ... its purpose, as I'm trying to respect this time around, is to reduce drafts.  Drafts?
  • Patience.  My recipe says to let it rise for an hour or so.  So I set the chicken(-shaped) timer for an hour and take a break.  It's supposed to double in size ... I look at it and think, well, maybe I forgot how small it was beforehand.
  • Warmth.  Everyone I've talked to about my challenges tells me that their grandmothers put the dough in the oven with the oven light on, that that is the perfect temperature for rising.  
Last night: I proofed the yeast, put the dough in a cooling oven, put the light on, was patient, and left it there all night (which apparently also happened in the shtetl, although somehow I think perhaps they didn't have oven lights).

I woke up this morning and finally understood what rising means!  This is an entirely different dough than what I've experienced so far.  I've now grown some great yeast.

However, and perhaps this is the deeper source of my problem and my impatience, the part I really care about is not the growing, not even the eating, but the kneading.

The only time I ever saw a family member knead was when I was very, very little, and I watched my grandmother make kreplach.  When I had my first wonton, it sent me right back to my grandmother's kreplach.  Interestingly, my family laughed at my grandmother's kreplach, too, so that's probably why I only had it that once.

I love kneading.  Delightfully, challah involves two risings and therefore two kneadings.  When I started this process of learning how to make challah, kneading for just a few minutes was hard.  Now I can easily go 10 minutes (and I'm not supposed to go longer, sadly), standing on solid shoes; sometimes literally pounding the dough with my fists after the second rise, breathing rhythmically, kneading with my palms and my fingers.  Turn, fold, breathe, punch.  It's meditative.

The two that rose

1 comment:

Inspector Clouseau said...

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