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By the Book: Deb Perelman’s Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah

March 19th 07:03pm, 2013

Don’t let my last name fool you; I’m a shiksa through and through. And if Yiddish had a term for a gentile who can’t bake, I’d be that too.

Then why did I choose this recipe for challah? I like the challenge. And challah is delicious. And if you celebrate Passover, I figured this would be a good week to gorge on bread. But mostly, I chose to make it because if anyone can teach me how to bake a fancy-looking bread like challah (in a gentle, non-intimidating way), it’s going to be Deb Perelman.

In Perelman’s much-anticipated cookbook The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, she includes over 100 recipes organized by course: breakfast; salads; sandwiches, tarts and pizzas; the main dish: vegetarian; the main dish: seafood, poultry and meat; sweets; and party snacks and drinks. For those of you who follow her blog, she assured me in a phone interview that less than 15 percent of her book came from her blog. When creating the book, she wanted to make sure that the end product would still be of value for those who had been reading her blog for a long time.

On my first attempt at this challah, I used sorghum in the place of honey because I was too lazy to go to the store. I figured it would work the same, but then the dough didn’t rise. This could have been the result of a number of variables, and I probably should have just waited longer than Perelman recommended (one hour), but I was too impatient and threw it away, opting to start over again the next day and use honey like the recipe called for. On my second attempt, while the dough was rising, I made the fig filling. I got a little overzealous with my zest, accidentally tripling the amount, but in Perelman’s ingredient list, she said that I could use “more as needed,” so I took this to mean that this accident was OK.

On my second attempt, the dough did rise, but I was too tired to finish the rest of the process, so I wrapped it tightly in Saran wrap, put it in the fridge and returned to it two days later. When I then rolled out the dough, it was a bit tough and didn’t seem to roll into as large of a rectangle as I needed, which I’m fairly certain was because I had left it in the fridge for two days, but I decided to work with it anyway.

Once I spread the fig filling across the dough, I rolled it into a snake. The dough still didn’t seem “right,” but the fig filling woven into the dough looked so impressive, I assumed that no matter what happened, this bread would still turn out decent.

As the directions directed, I made four snakes total, arranged them like a tic-tac-toe board and then starting weaving them to resemble as Perelman said, “an eight-legged woven-headed octopus.” This is why I love Perelman. If she had used a technical baking term, I would have had no idea what she was talking about, but with the octopus reference (and the step-by-step photos), I felt confident that, yes, I can make a giant octopus out of dough.

I don’t think my snakes were quite long enough because the final woven look of the bread was certainly not as pretty as hers.

However, the challah turned out looking sort-of nice, and, more importantly, it tasted amazing. I feel like my second attempt (well, third) at this bread will be much more successful.

Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah
Yield: 1 large loaf

2¼ tsp. (1 packet—oz. or 7 g.) active dry yeast
¼ cup (85 g.) plus 1 tsp. honey
2/3 cup (160 ml) warm water
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
2 large eggs
2 tsp. flaky or coarse seal salt, such as Maldon, or 1½ tsp. table salt
4 cups (500 g.) all-purpose flour

Fig filling:
1 cup (5½ oz. or 155 g.) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
1/8 tsp. freshly grated orange zest, or more as needed
½ cup (120 ml) water
¼ cup (60 ml) orange juice
1/8 tsp. sea salt
Few grinds of black pepper

Egg wash:
1 large egg
Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

To make dough with a stand mixer:
• Whisk the yeast and honey into the warm water, and let it stand for a few minutes, until foamy. In a large mixer bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the remaining honey, the olive oil and eggs. Add the salt and flour, and mix until the dough begins to hold together. Switch to a dough hook, and run at low speed for 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the dough to an olive-oil-coated bowl (Or rest the dough briefly on the counter and oil your mixer bowl to use for rising, so that you use fewer dishes.), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

To make dough by hand:
• Proof the yeast as directed above. Mix the wet ingredients with a whisk, then add the salt and flour. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed. Let rise as directed above.

• Meanwhile, make the fig paste. In a small saucepan, combine the figs, zest, water, juice, salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the figs are soft and tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Process the fig mixture in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Set aside to cool.
• Insert figs. After your dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Roll the first half of the dough into a wide and totally imperfect rectangle (Really, the shape doesn’t matter.). Spread half the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge. Roll the dough into a long, tight log, trapping the filling within. Then, gently stretch the long as wide as feels comfortable (I take mine to my max counter width, about three feet.) and divide it in half. Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling, creating four ropes.
• Weave your challah. Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center, and move them over the leg of their right (like jumping it). Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round.
• Transfer the dough to a parchment-covered heavy baking sheet or, if you’ll be using a bread stone, a baker’s peel. Beat the egg until smooth, and brush over the challah. Let the challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
• Before baking, brush the loaf one more time with the egg wash and sprinkle it with flaky or coarse sea salt.
• Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. It should be beautifully bronzed; if yours starts getting too dark too quickly, cover it with foil for the remainder of the baking time. The very best way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer—the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees.
• Cool the loaf on a rack before serving.

Reprinted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf

Have a story about botching a recipe and then redeeming yourself on your second attempt? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a SIGNED copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Patty, whose comment on last week’s By the Book has won her a copy of Small Plates and Sweet Treats: My Family’s Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking. Patty, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew. 

By Julie Cohen

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6 Responses to “By the Book: Deb Perelman’s Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah”

  1. Sue Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    The first time I made pierogi (Polish Dumplings) on my own I boiled them in salted water before sauteeing in a bit of butter. I only had a small pot to boil them in so the water kept evaporating. I continued to add water and salt not realizing that salt doesn’t evaporate. The dumplings were so inedible we had to throw them all away since I couldn’t figure out which ones came from the first least-salted batch – an entire weekend wasted! Ever since then I learned my lesson on salted water and have been successfully cooking pierogi and other fresh pastas without incident. However, I could never get my friends to try pierogi after that – at least the ones I made.

  2. sarah jane Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    The first time I ever tried to bake a cheesecake in a water bath was a total disaster… Seriously, when the recipe tells you to use heavy duty foil and make sure to double wrap it, LISTEN!! haha! I eventually mastered it, but it took a few times!

  3. Earen Hummel Says:
    March 20th, 2013 at 9:02 am

    I have so many botched recipe stories! Making toffee and adding the wrong amount of vinegar (too much), cheesecake with no sugar (oops!), pumpkin pie using tablespoons of spices rather than teaspoons. I learned that I had better read the directions a bit more closely!

    I love Deb Perlman! I would love to have a signed copy of her book.

  4. Hao Says:
    March 21st, 2013 at 10:24 am

    the first time i attempted mashed potatoes for thanksgiving, i had no idea what i was doing… first of all, i left the skin on. secondly, i didn’t cut up the potatoes before boiling, so it took FOREVER. thirdly, i didn’t know to add milk or cream or butter so it was not fluffy at all. After that incident, I learned to read a bunch of recipes before attempting to do something “simple” in the kitchen. on the bright side, the next time i tried making mashed potatoes, they turned out pretty good!

  5. Frances Says:
    March 21st, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Years ago, I was baking blueberry muffins to bring to school for my birthday (we were all between 9-11 years old) We didnt have vegetable oil left at home so I figured olive oil (extra virgin, extra fancy) was ‘kinda the same thing.’ So I went ahead and made 30 muffins; the next day i shared them with my classmates and when they took a bite they all spit it out immediately! the muffins tasted so gross – I was so embarrassed!! That evening i made a new batch with the right ingredients and I redeemed myself!!

  6. Jenny Says:
    March 23rd, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I must have watched my mother bake my father no less than a dozen Angel Food Cakes for his birthdays throughout my childhood. They were always made from scratch, turned upside down in the pan to cool (on top of a tequila bottle) and topped with a fresh strawberry glaze. After watching her go through the motions so many times like clockwork, and convincing myself that I had been a reasonably proficient baker since the age of 15, I attempted my first Angel Food Cake last summer. I had apparently been a little absent minded during the egg white whipping procedure my mother had perfected. My cake came out about 2 and a half inches tall and completely wet and gooey in the middle. I had to toss it and improvise with the strawberries and whipped cream that were supposed to top it. I redeemed myself for Dad’s next birthday (giving the egg whites the love and respected they require) and was quite happy with the results.

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