Challah today, French toast tomorrow

(Honey Poppyseed Challah)

The above loaf was double glazed, sprinkled with poppyseeds and slipped into the oven. For forty agonising minutes, there was a gentle scent of warm honey in the air. All I wanted to do was star-wipe to the moment when I would be sitting down to a plate of fresh challah French toast. Soon, soon.

In truth, I don’t eat much French toast or even bake challah very often. But over a bowl of oatmeal the other morning, I found myself fantasising about a pile of fried eggy bread, dripping with honey and sweet blueberries. (Yes, I often think about other foods I’m not eating as I eat. Doesn’t everyone? Some things are a little harder to attain at short notice though.. like a fresh fish breakfast from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market or one of Pierre Herme’s magical Ispahan macarons.)

The general lack of fresh baked challah in our home probably stems from my fear of braids. Having lived most of my life thus far under the same bowl haircut, you could say what was lacking was sufficient childhood braiding experience. For the purposes of this exercise, I used Rose Levy Berenbaum’s traditional challah recipe from her book, which you can also find here. After gravely contemplating instructions for the 6-braid loaf, I wimped out and opted for the simpler 3-braid, which still managed to get screwed up slightly.

But I did learn a few things along the way.

If you prepare the dough the day before and chill it overnight, you can bake it the next day, just in time for morning tea. There are several subtle things you can do to enhance the quality or flavour of the loaf. Substituting honey for sugar makes the baking bread smell *amazing* and the flavour in the end product is really lovely and delicate. Melissa Clark uses orange juice and extra virgin olive oil in her recipe, which I can imagine must also make for a very delicious loaf. If you’re considering making this, go for 6-braids. There’s even whispers of a 9-braid loaf for the most daring.

Do it, and let me know what time I should be over for breakfast.

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Bagels and schmear.

(Bagel with a pickled onion and herb schmear)

All it took was a 10,000 mile trip to New York and a feet stampingly cold day. A fleeting moment during our two week stay made mostly memorable by that wonderful balance between plate gazing at fancy restaurants and sky gazing up at iconic buildings that once belonged only in the realm of books and movies.

It took just one afternoon as we sat in the park with friends and ate plump chewy bagels smeared with cream cheese and topped with smoked salmon. I recalled dogs on leashes drifting past in coats thicker and fancier than mine. I even remembered declaring before the first bite, that I’d never really been a fan of bagels (beagles on the other hand..!). Amazing how time and place can change your mind.

Ever since that day, I’ve longed to relive our New York experience. The current cooling weather has me yearning for another return trip. This time I want to taste ALL the amazing apples at the markets, and we have yet to try a hot dog from Grays Papaya or a pizza from Roberta’s. I also need more Reubens and pickles in my life, and bagels with schmear eaten while perched on park benches.

In the mean time, I have this recipe to use whenever I’m feeling nostalgic, enjoyed with repeat applications of schmear of course. The schmear is basically good quality cream cheese mixed with whatever flavours you fancy and mine is a mixture of many things I’m currently obsessed with.

Pickled onion and herb schmear :

1 block (250g) cream cheese (at room temperature)
1 tablespoon pickled onion juice
2-3 pickled onions, chopped
1 handful of mixed herbs or peppery leaves (eg cress, radish leaves, parsley, chives) chopped
pinch of chili powder
pinch of sea salt

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process briefly until smooth. Apply thickly on sliced bagels, toast or plain crackers.

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Of Easter eggs and buns

Hot Cross Buns

Every Easter, for quite a few years now, I’ve been trying out different hot cross bun recipes. It’s not something I intentionally set out to do, but all the same has turned into a delicious, much-anticipated annual experiment. One that rarely results in any duds and instead quite often uncovers a few gems.

Since I also happen to have the luxury of time this year, I decided to try my hand at decorating Easter eggs. For this, a batch of eggs were dyed with food scraps (pictured above) and the remainder were covered with patterns using a neat trick as seen here.

Of the two techniques, using food scraps to obtain natural dyes was the most interesting, especially for a big kid like myself. The eggs were boiled until just cooked, cooled, then left to soak for several hours in jars of various dyes. The unpredictable nature in which the colour would form and be absorbed into the shell meant that the pattern on every egg you scooped out of the dye bath, was always a surprise. So far the best colours have been extracted from the use of boiled onion skins (orange brown), red cabbage leaves (shades of blue and purple) and turmeric (bright yellow).

Once you’re done admiring them though, you’re then left with the task of eating eggs for the remainder of the week – an idea rendered somewhat more palatable by having started with good quality, organic, free-range eggs, and the fact that the eggs weren’t boiled to the point of dry and greying yolks. We had yellow tinted eggs with a noodle salad for dinner last night. Very delicious.

But back to the buns. This year I’ve tried a recipe using an Asian bread baking method that incorporates a water roux also known as Tangzhong, into the dough. The roux supposedly helps retain moisture in the dough, resulting in a fluffy baked product that also doesn’t dry out as quickly. Two dozen very consistent, great tasting batches later and I think this just might be the recipe that puts an end to my hot cross bun baking experiments for good.

Of course, if there was some way to logically incorporate boiled eggs and baked buns into more of our meals, you’d probably find me still experimenting for many years to come.

Hot Cross Buns :
(makes 12; slightly adapted from this recipe)

For the water roux :
25g flour
125g water

For the dough :
350g flour
35g sugar
5g salt
1 egg
125g milk
1 sachet dried yeast
30g soft unsalted butter
100g raisins
20g chopped dark chocolate
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

To decorate : flour paste for crosses and a glaze of your choice (Here I’ve used an Earl Grey tea jelly. Alternatives include : warmed apricot jam, lemon or vanilla-flavoured sugar syrup or a reduced malt/maple syrup)

First make the roux. Whisk the flour and water together in a small pan over medium heat. Cook, whisking at all times, until the mixture thickens. If you’re unsure as to what this is supposed to look like, you can also test the temperature of the thickened mix. It should have reached 65’C. Once it has thickened, scrape the roux into the bowl of your mixer (it should weigh 120g). Place some cling film over the surface of the roux and allow it to cool to room temperature.

When the roux has cooled down, add the egg, milk and sugar to the bowl, followed by the yeast, flour, salt and spices. With the dough hook attached, start mixing the dough until it comes together and looks smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and continue mixing on medium speed for another 2-3 minutes. Mix in the dried fruit and chopped chocolate, then cover the bowl and leave the dough to prove for an hour or until doubled.

Once doubled, divide the dough into 12 pieces (12 x 65g). Roll into balls and arrange them roughly 1.5 inches apart on a lined tray. Cover lightly with greased cling film and allow to prove again for another hour. Meanwhile, make your flour paste (see note below), place it into a piping bag and set aside.

Once the buns have proved, pipe the crosses on the buns and bake them in a preheated 190’C oven for 14 minutes. When they are ready, they should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Remove them from the oven and brush with a glaze of your choice while they are still warm.

[Note : Make a flour paste by mixing 8 tablespoons of flour to roughly 4 tablespoons of water to achieve a pipe-able paste. This is for the crosses on the buns, and is more than you will need, because I find it easier to pipe the crosses evenly when there is a decent amount of mixture in the bag. If you think flour paste crosses taste horrible, you can leave them out and instead pipe a sugar or white chocolate cross on each bun once they are cooled]/strong

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