Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fig challah

Because the wind is howling and it's raining... because it feels like autumn in Russia... because there's nothing as cheerful as the smell of freshly baking bread - you should make this today.

You see from the name of this blog that I wasn't going to leave a recipe like this alone. I've been pretty faithful to her recipe (not something that can be said of me often) but I would leave out the sea salt on the top from next time. I'm not against the mixture of sweet/salty flavors, but this fig-rich bread is one I'd personally like on the sweeter side.

Here's the list of ingredients, with my slight adjustments:

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
2 large eggs + 1 egg for the egg wash
1 teaspoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 3/4 teaspoon table salt
4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour (yes, that's bread flour in my picture - I made a mistake)

Fig Filling
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, or more as desired
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Few grinds black pepper

In a small bowl, warm up 2/3 cup warm water (slightly above body temperature but not too hot to the touch) and stir in the active dry yeast and a teaspoon of honey to get the yeast going. Let stand a few minutes until a froth starts forming on the surface.

In a large bowl pour in the olive oil, honey and egg, then the yeast mixture.

 Measure in the dry ingredients and start mixing with a spoon.

The dough shouldn't be too hard to mix, as it is rather wet. However, it's not sticky because there's plenty of oil in it. When the mass is more or less in one piece, roll up your sleeves and start kneading. Work up a good sweat - some 10 minutes will do. Or you can do it by machine.

Coat the bowl and dough with a few drops of olive oil and let rest covered in a warm place for an hour, or until doubled in size.

While that's going on, remove the stems from the dried figs. Go and find them - they may be half buried in the flesh, but they're hard, so you don't want to leave them.

Roughly chop them up and put into a small pan with the water, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Simmer, covered, for 10 or 15 minutes, or until the figs are completely softened. Take off the heat, let cool for a bit, and puree in the food processor. You should have about a cup of the stuff.

And, by the way, this stuff is so good, I'm going to make this separately and have as jam. It might not keep long since it has no added sugar, but that's not going to be an issue - I started sneaking increasingly large spoonfuls "just to taste." But you know I have this thing about figs.

Take your doubled-in-size dough and cut in half. Roll out each piece thinly into a rectangle, more or less. It doesn't really matter if it's not a clean shape - but mine was roughly about 12 inches by 18. Don't worry, this isn't pizza dough; it's easy to roll out and won't spring back.

Slather half of the fig paste all over the dough. Roll it up tightly so that no air is trapped inside, but not so tightly that you push the fig paste out.

Now comes the fun part - stretch that long log of dough as long as it will go. It's not as delicate an operation as you may fear - I found that it stretches easily if I lift the dough up in one place - its own weight will start stretching the rolled dough.
I think mine turned out to be about 3 feet long - then I cut it into half. You will have four ropes about a foot and a half long.

Now you're going to weave this into a round. It's easier than a braid, and prettier, I think. (And it's easier than it looks or reads.)

Take the four ropes and lay them out so that each rope goes over another and goes under another. That's a clumsy explanation, but I hope the photo helps.
Then, take a rope that comes out from under another one, and put it over the one to the right (the one it's coming under from.) This means you will be crossing the ropes four times at this step.  It will look like the picture below.

Take another rope from underneath and cross it over the one to its right.  Repeat until all the strands are used up.

Don't worry if the dough stretches too much and reveals the figs paste in some places. In my experience, it won't burn in the oven or look ugly. 

When you have woven all the ropes, just tuck the loose ends underneath the challah and make a nice round shape.

Put it on a gratin dish or two layers of baking sheets with a piece of parchment paper. You want a thick bottom to bake it on, because this bread contains a lot of sugar and browns easily. 

In a small bowl, beat an egg with a fork. Give your challah a good egg wash.

And psst, if you don't have a brush, you can just smear with your hands. It won't make a difference to the bread, and it will make you feel delighted as if you're five years old.

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Cover and leave in a warm place for an hour - it will nearly double in volume again.

Just before baking, give it another good egg wash. It's the egg that gives challah its lovely dark and shiny color. 

I didn't have any on hand, but if you do, you could also sprinkle a little pearl sugar on top. That would be pretty and delicious!

Bake in the middle of the oven for about 40 minutes. If it starts coloring too quickly on the top, just put a sheet of aluminum foil over it and that should stop it from getting any browner. As smitten kitchen says, the very best way to check a bread for doneness is to insert an instant-read thermometer - the center of the loaf should be 195F.

Enjoy. I had thick slabs for breakfast for several days, and now that it's gotten dry, I'm going to make French toast. It will be lovely.


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