By Hannah Lee
In the foodie world, we fans tend to follow our favorite authors from their humble blogging origins to their splashy success in the publishing and media worlds. Case in point, I have both cookbooks by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman. So, it was with tremendous regret that coming back from New York, I was too fatigued to attend a presentation by Deb Perelman at the Free Library last evening. She was to talk about her new book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Her website, The Smitten Kitchen, has inspired me and her other legions of fans to expand our gustatory horizons. The marvel is that she works from a tiny kitchen in a New York apartment. She proves the point that talent heeds no boundaries and space is not a limitation.
I made her Fig-Olive Oil-Sea Salt Challah for a recent Shabbat and it was as spectacular as the author’s photos. The braiding was unusual also, because it was woven like the pot holders we used to make as children.
Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah
From The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Yield: 1 large loaf
- 2 1/4 tsp (1 packet – 1/4 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 tsp honey
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tsp flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 1 1/2 tsp table salt
- 4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
- 1/8 tsp freshly grated orange zest, or more as desired
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
- 1/8 tsp sea salt
- A few grinds black pepper
- 1 large egg
- Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
To make dough with a stand mixer: Whisk the yeast and 1 tsp honey into 2/3 cup warm water (110 to 116 degrees), and let it stand for a few minutes, until foamy. In a large mixer bowl, combine the yeast mixture with remaining honey, 1/3 cup olive oil, and eggs. Add the salt and flour, and mix until 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’ll use fewer dishes), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.
To make the 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 fig paste: In a small saucepan, combine the figs, zest, 1/2 cup water, juice, salt, and a few grinds of black peper. 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 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 log as wide as feels comfortable (I take mine to my max counter width, a pathetic three feet), and divide it in half. Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling.
Weave your challah: Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight 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 the leg to their right – i.e., 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-cover heavy baking sheet, or, if you’ll be using a bread stone, a baker’s peel. Beat egg until smooth, and brush over challah. Let challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 375°F.
Bake your loaf: Before baking, brush loaf one more time with egg wash and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake in middle of 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 loaf on a rack before serving. Or, well, good luck with that.