What to Bake During Quarantine if You Really Don't Want to Babysit a Sourdough Starter
When we first entered the pandemic lockdown, banana bread was the "it" thing to bake. When we were deep into it (or at least so we thought), people became more ambitious and ventured into making sourdough bread. It was all about the starter — naming the starter, what you could do with leftover starter, and of course, achieving the perfect loaf of sourdough bread.
I love to bake, I truly do. And I was all about the challenge of making a sourdough bread until a friend gave us part of their starter. "It's easy," they said, "just feed it daily."
Well, given the fact that I feed two young growing boys on a daily basis, "feeding a starter" seemed less like stress-reducing baking and more like adding stress to my already-full parenting plate.
But there is something zen about working with dough, the process of letting it rise, and of course the smells of freshly-baked bread coming out of the oven.
So I decided to start baking challah. Challah had been on my list for a long time, as our family is Jewish, and it's often a tradition to cook challah for Shabbat. Admittedly, it was something I had never done on my own, but when a friend offered to do a Zoom challah demo, I couldn't help but be curious.
It turns out challah is a lot easier to make than sourdough. After your initial mixing and kneading of the ingredients, you only have to worry about one rise. So, if you wanted to make it just after lunch, it would be ready to be on your table by that evening. I usually mix all of the ingredients together and power through some work while it rises.
As you can see by this collection of challah recipes, there are many different ways to make challah. You can use a bread machine or knead by hand. Some recipes use sugar; others use honey. Mostly all use eggs (because it is considered an egg bread), but there are ways to make it vegan.
Many of them are passed down from generation to generation. My mom never made challah, so I borrowed my friend's recipe (the one who taught me over Zoom). There is something cathartic about the process, and it's also nice to start a new family tradition during these times.
The tricky part of the challah is the braiding. If you are a pro at braiding hair, you probably won't find it complicated, but that for me is the toughest part. There are plenty of videos to teach you how to braid, and the simplest is probably the three strand braid, although you can certainly take it next level if you are that artistic.
Make Challah Your Own
Challah is also super versatile. You can make it plain, or top it with sesame or poppy seeds, which are the more traditional versions.
From there, however, you can get a little creative. Raisins or chocolate chips are popular to add into the dough, but why not also add some cinnamon or even za'atar or garlic. I have added dried fruit like cherries or apricots, too.
Everything bagel spice makes a great savory topping; turbinado sugar and cinnamon for a sweet challah, even sprinkles. If you want to get really creative, you can use a little food coloring for each strand of the braid to create a rainbow challah. It also makes excellent French toast the next morning if there are any leftovers.
This time is weird, for sure, but challah has given me a little bit of comfort in the chaos. Each Friday night I have a ritual that is not only soothing but also delicious.