Year of Yeh #2: Basic Challah

This weekend, I tackled another recipe from Molly on the Range…with help from my husband, who is an excellent bread baker! There were several bread recipes (especially challah recipes) in Molly on the Range to choose from, but we decided to start with basic challah.

The recipe: Basic Challah
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 3+ hours (but much of that time is hands-off)

This challah was the perfect lazy weekend bake. It was slightly time-consuming to make, but much of the prep time was hands-off, leading to lots of down time while the dough rose. This challah was also a lot of fun to bake with a partner. My husband and I split the dough into two balls, and each braided a challah simultaneously.

On the subject of braiding the challah: that was the most challenging part of this recipe. My husband made a 5-stranded braid, and I made a 4-stranded one, but we both found that our braids were a bit loose on one end (the end where we started the braid) and tighter on the other end. Luckily, the second rise (and the third rise, or the bake) allows the dough to expand and correct any looseness.

Husband’s 5-stranded challah on the left; my 4-stranded challah on the right.

All in all, this recipe took us over 3 hours…and it was so worth it! This challah recipe is honestly perfect. The bread is soft and airy, with a smooth golden crust. Because the challah uses an enriched dough, the bread is rich and just slightly sweet, making it one of the few breads that is enjoyable on its own. But it is also excellent with butter, jam, fresh fruit, or probably anything else you want to put on it.

Sliced challah with butter and passionfruit.

Technical notes:

  • You will need a VERY LARGE bowl if you follow the recipe as it listed in the Molly on the Range cookbook (it calls for 6.5 cups of flour, as opposed to 3.5 in the scaled-down version on KAF)
  • If you have a kitchen scale, weight out your dough so that your braid strands are roughly the same size. This will make the braiding easier.
  • DON’T flour your work surface before you roll out the strands! It’s easier to elongate your dough strands if they are not coated in flour (I learned the hard way).

The Dreamers (plus, a dreamy chocolate-cherry-almond bread)

The book: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.

As my personal life gets busier, I find myself wanting to read only binge-worthy fiction novels that offer me the chance to stop thinking about stressful realities and escape into a different universe. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker was the perfect book for that. The premise of the novel is that a small town in California is confronted with an outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. As the disease spreads through the town, scientists and government authorities try to manage the epidemic, and the threat of the illness affects various residents’ lifestyles and relationships.

Something that I appreciated about The Dreamers was its thoroughness: the novel offers glimpses into many facets of a major epidemic including the disease symptoms, the attempts to quarantine the infected and prevent further spread of the disease, the politicization of the epidemic, and the general chaos that follows the outbreak. The book also shows how fear spreads with the epidemic, and how the threat of becoming infected affects people in different ways. Mei, a shy college student, becomes bolder and more sure of herself. A young couple with a newborn baby is forced to confront marital issues they had intentionally repressed. Two young sisters gain the opportunity to think for themselves after the quarantine separates them from their controlling, paranoid father.

The Dreamers also subtly nods to other issues. Climate change – and the willful ignorance of those who continue living in precarious environments – is a major theme. The book also demonstrates (and I mean demonstrates, this issue is never explicitly discussed) how parents’ own biases and fears can negatively impact their children. These themes aren’t major foci in the novel – a book cannot responsibly cover every issue in under 300 pages – but they are there, and they add depth to the story.

The biggest weakness of The Dreamers might be that it attempts too much. There are too many characters, too many things going on, and too many themes. If you are someone who likes getting to know one or a few characters in all of their complexity, The Dreamers might disappoint you in that respect.

And speaking of disappointments, the ending of the novel was kind of underwhelming! That’s just my subjective opinion though, and sometimes an “underwhelming” ending is the most realistic one, as life isn’t always so dramatic. Overall, The Dreamers is an interesting and addictive novel that explores many aspects of humanity through the lens of a disease epidemic.

The bake: chocolate-cherry-almond challah.

During the week that I read The Dreamers – a novel about a town plagued by sleeping sickness – I barely slept at all. I was fatigued during the day and sleepy at night, yet still somehow unable to sleep! Because of the ironic timing of this insomnia spell, I decided to bake something inspired by sleep. I did some investigative research (i.e. a google search) into foods that help promote sleep, and among the results were cherries, almonds, and dark chocolate. Three flavors that I love and that taste great together: perfect for a bake!

I combined my favorite three sleep-promoting flavors together in a challah bread, following this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Instead of adding apples and raisins, though, I added the trifecta of chocolate, cherries, and almonds. And since I wasn’t using apples (which add moisture to the bread), I added an extra 1/4 cup of water. Also, I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping because I didn’t think it would go well with my flavors.

This challah recipe was awesome! I proved my dough (i.e. let it sit and rise) for the minimum recommended amount of time, and the loaf still got huge! The taste and texture of the bread were also great, and I think that many different fillings could work with the base challah recipe. Despite containing a trifecta of allegedly-sleep-promoting-fillings, I doubt this bread will actually put you to sleep…so you can enjoy it whenever you want! What a dream!

The Incendiaries (a novel about a relationship gone wrong, and my story of apricot bread gone right)

The book: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon.

Last week I read The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. The novel is the (fictional) account of a college student, Will Kendall, trying to understand how his ex-girlfriend became deeply involved in a pro-life cult. The story is primarily told from Will’s perspective, although he also tries to imagine pieces of the story from the perspectives of his ex-girlfriend Phoebe Lin and cult-leader John Leal. As the plot unfolds, the novel also becomes the story of the dissolution of Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as a story about Will’s fraught relationship with religion.

The first few chapters of The Incendiaries seem like a typical college love-story, as R. O. Kwon spends a lot of time developing Will and Phoebe’s characters and their relationship. However, as the story progresses, it becomes much darker. We see the flaws in Will and Phoebe’s relationship, as well as Phoebe’s underlying guilt complex that makes her so vulnerable to unhealthy relationships and religious brainwashing.

One thing that surprised me in The Incendiaries was realizing that the narrator – Will Kendall – was often unreliable. It becomes especially evident in the second half of the novel that, although Will likes to think of himself as an unbiased observer, sometimes his perspective is simply wrong. He is blinded by his attachment to Phoebe, and he can only see her as an idealized image, not the complex person she truly is. Of course, Will doesn’t realize this – he thinks his flawed perspective is the objective truth. These shortcomings of Will make him frustrating, but realistic, and R. O. Kwon did an amazing job writing from his realistically flawed perspective.

In addition to having complex, well-developed characters, The Incendiaries is an addictive and thought-provoking read. There are questions about the story that I still haven’t resolved (and I finished this book over a week ago). For example: did Phoebe’s increasing involvement in the cult cause her relationship with Will to dissolve, or was it the slow dissolution of their relationship that pushed her further into the cult? It’s hard to say because there is validity to both perspectives, but I really like how R. O. Kwon leaves this ambiguous and forces the reader to think for themselves.

Overall, I highly recommend The Incendiaries. R. O. Kwon beautifully captures the recklessness and naiveté of young love, as well as how deep unexamined pain can drive people to extreme actions. The novel’s ending leaves major questions unresolved, yet somehow The Incendiaries is still a totally satisfying read.

The bake: apricot swirl bread.

For The Incendiaries, I decided to bake something inspired by the character of Phoebe. Throughout the novel, we see how she fluctuates between discipline and wildness, and as such, I decided to bake something that straddles the line between both.

To me, baking with yeast is the ultimate crossover between discipline and wildness. Yeast is a living organism, and small changes in temperature or humidity have a huge impact on the way yeast reacts with other baking ingredients. Yet there’s a reason why humans have been baking with yeast for centuries: under the right conditions yeast behaves predictably, making it very useful as long as it’s used carefully.

With that in mind, I made this apricot swirl bread from King Arthur Flour (they call it a “coffee cake” on their website, but I would call it a bread). I followed the recipe exactly as its written on the site because, as mentioned above, yeast requires specific conditions! It took about three hours, but much of the time was inactive.

I was so excited to cut a slice of bread that I forgot to take a picture of the in-tact loaf! This is what it looks like with one slice already cut out, oops!

My bread didn’t turn out nearly as beautifully as the King Arthur Flour example…I guess the imperfections highlight the “wildness” that partly inspired this bake. Imperfections and all, this is a lovely bread: light enough that you don’t feel too indulgent eating it, and packed with delicious apricot flavor. Perfect to soothe your soul after the emotional journey that was The Incendiaries…or to enjoy for any other occasion!