Season to Taste: Basic Kneads
It takes just one bread-borne disaster to make a fearful baker out of even the most comfortable cook. Like wine and cheese, bread is a living, breathing organism with a mysterious, unpredictable Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, capable of bringing both great joy and sincere misery to its maker. “I always tell people that baking should be fun,” says Maggie Glezer, author of A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World (Artisan Press). “When they hear the word ‘yeast’ they get so uneasy. I encourage people to just relax.”
Easier said than done. Unlike cooking, where in most cases an extra clove of garlic or one more splash of balsamic vinegar won’t destroy a recipe beyond repair, baking discourages improvisation, requires serious discipline and rewards those with acumen for following directions and a high comfort level with delayed gratification. Still, the aroma of fresh-baked bread is an olfactory delight, making the effort worthwhile. Golden loaves of halla or pliant rounds of pita evoke memories of joyous Shabbat and holiday celebrations, as well as the hearth-like warmth associated with the Jewish kitchen.
It was the natural connection between Jews and bread that inspired Glezer to write her book. Two years of research and many nights spent baking with women in the United States and Israel yielded an enlightening and comprehensive volume full of easy-to-follow, albeit exacting, recipes for everything from apple halla to za’atar-spiced pita bread.
What she discovered was a tradition of bread as old as the Jewish people itself. Archaeologists in Israel have unearthed evidence of bread making in the Fertile Crescent, and the Canaanites, Israel’s first inhabitants, are believed to have taught the invading Egyptians how to bake bread. Abraham, famous for his hospitality, had his wife, Sarah, knead and bake cakes for the visiting angels. The Talmud posits that Sarah’s loaves stayed fresh all week, from Friday to Friday, as a sign of her righteousness. Later on, when migration, wars and persecution divided Jews into Ashkenazim and Sefardim, Jewish bread split along geographic lines. According to Glezer, the pitas found everywhere in North Africa today are close to what would have been found in Abraham’s tent, while the sweet, braided loaves of halla so common among East European Jews are believed to have originated with Jewish housewives emulating their gentile neighbors’ Sunday loaves.
When baking at home, measure ingredients carefully and use a digital scale for accuracy. Avoid substitutions and forgo the more common active dry yeast, which contains more dead yeast cells and requires a warm water and sugar “aphrodisiac” to stimulate fermentation; instant yeast—also known as rapid-rise, quick-rise, bread-machine or perfect-rise yeast—yields more consistent results. And be patient—many of Glezer’s recipes call for overnight refrigeration to help develop the bread’s flavor and crust. After baking and a thorough cooling, most breads can last up to a month in the freezer if wrapped in an airtight bag or plastic wrap.
The next time you’re invited to a meal, consider bringing a fresh-baked loaf of this olive oil halla (opposite page) in lieu of a bottle of wine. Savory and toothsome, Glezer’s recipe reclaims halla as a bona fide bread, rescuing it from the sugary, cake-like recipes that often seem more appropriate for dessert than to serve with a meal. And since olives are one of the seven species used to observe Tu Bishvat, this month’s holiday that reminds us that spring is just around the bend, it’s a great way to introduce a whole new tradition with bread into your own family and community.
Olive Oil Halla
This dough requires extended refrigeration and rising time before baking. If you’re preparing it for Shabbat or a holiday, start the day before.
-1 tsp (0.1 oz) instant yeast
-3 3/4 cups (17.6 oz) bread flour
-1 1/4 cups warm water
-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
-2 tsp (0.4 oz) table salt
1. In a large bowl whisk yeast and 1 1/4 cups flour. Whisk in warm water until smooth. Let stand for 10-20 minutes, or until puffed slightly.
2. Whisk oil and salt into yeast mixture until smooth. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in remaining 2 1/2 cups flour. When mixture forms a shaggy ball, scrape it onto a clean work surface and knead until well mixed and fairly smooth.
3. Soak mixing bowl in warm water to clean and prepare for rising the dough. If dough is too firm, add one or two TB water; if too wet, add a few TB flour.
4. Place dough in warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until tripled in bulk, 2-3 hours.
5. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or oiled foil. Divide dough in half. Braid or shape each loaf as desired. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours.
6. Two and a half hours before baking, remove loaves from refrigerator and rise again. Half hour before baking, preheat oven to 425° and remove all racks except one, positioned in top third of oven.
7. When loaves are tripled in size and remain indented when pressed, brush with water and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake 30 minutes, then switch from front to back to ensure even browning. Bake an additional 10 minutes until deeply browned. Cool on a rack.
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