Monday, September 27, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Challah and Cinnamon Rolls

Baking class, week five. White bread, whole wheat bread, baguettes and similar breads are made from what are called “lean doughs,” in that they consist of little more than flour, water, yeast and salt. A little butter or oil may be added, but the doughs are very simple and generally not sweet. “Enriched yeast doughs” or “sweet doughs,” the subject of this week’s class, have similar ingredients but more fat and sugar (yum!). Products made from enriched yeast doughs include sweet rolls of various kinds, sticky buns, doughnuts, brioche, babkas, panettone…basically all my favorite baked goods. This is promising to be a good class.

The plan is to make challah, a traditional Jewish bread, and cinnamon rolls. For each of these the dough is shaped before baking, i.e. not just plopped into a pan in a single piece. For challah the dough is divided into strands and braided. For cinnamon rolls the dough is rolled into a spiral, from which individual rolls are cut. I’ve never made either of these so this is new territory.

Chef Dennis has decided that instead of preparing dough for individual loaves by hand, we’ll break out the large industrial-size mixer to mix and knead the dough for 16 loaves of challah all at once. This is feeling more like a professional enterprise. We go through the steps of mixing, and I notice that the dough requires an enormous amount of butter and eggs, which I find encouraging. After it’s kneaded, the dough is set aside to rise for an hour and a half.

Next is preparing dough for the cinnamon rolls. Once again we’re using the floor mixer, this time to make dough for an estimated 16 dozen cinnamon rolls. The dough takes 9 pounds of butter, 32 eggs, 16 pounds of flour and 2 1/2 pounds of sugar. Good stuff! The filling takes another 3 pounds of butter, 3 pounds of brown sugar and 4 ounces of cinnamon. That’s two or three of those little cinnamon canisters you’d buy in a supermarket. I love baking on an industrial scale!

When the challah dough has finished its first rise, Chef Dennis plops it on a work table to give it a little hand-kneading. At this point it has doubled in size and is the biggest mass of dough I’ve ever seen, measuring more than two feet in diameter and about a foot and a half high. It has a presence and attraction that is hard to describe, like a strange being in the middle of the room. The yeast in it is alive so technically the dough contains life. We all take a turn touching it; it feels soft and slimy and buttery, like nothing I’ve ever felt.

Challah is traditionally braided or formed into a turban-shaped loaf, so the chef cuts off a chunk of dough and demonstrates the simple braiding technique we’re to use. For each loaf the dough is divided into three equal parts. Each of these is rolled into a long strand, like an Italian breadstick but longer. These three strands are then braided together to form the loaf. After braiding, the dough is left to rise a bit more, and we turn our attention back to the cinnamon roll dough.

Once again the dough is plopped in a mass on a worktable, and sections are cut off for individual batches. Instead of braiding, the dough is rolled out to an 18” x 30” rectangle, then spread with a thin layer of brown sugar and cinnamon filling. This is rolled up length-wise to form the spiral shape characteristic of cinnamon rolls. Individual rolls are cut from the spiral and placed on a baking sheet to rise a second time.

My heart leaps when I see my loaf of challah come out of the oven. It’s beautiful. I tell Chef Dennis that this is why I took the class. At this point in his career he’s a little jaded about baking but I think he understands. Not only is it beautiful, it tastes terrific: heavenly light texture, moist, wonderful yeasty aroma. Next time I’ll give the surface a different wash to make it darker and shinier, but it’s a very satisfying first loaf.

The cinnamon rolls are another success. Considering the generic character of the recipes we’ve prepared up to this point, I’m dumbfounded by how utterly good the cinnamon rolls taste. I’m a big cinnamon roll fan, and I don’t believe I’ve ever had a better one. And there’s eight more to take home!

Take home: one loaf challah, eight large cinnamon rolls.

1 comment:

  1. Holla for challah! Those cinnamon rolls look delish...