Randy was an integral part of the bakery its first year. I had met Randy in Champaign-Urbana, where I heard him sing and play his guitar on an open microphone at the Red Herring Coffeehouse. Randy used to wail out his original compositions, and I do mean wail, but what he lacked in musicality he made up for in heart. He was a person of great sincerity and had insightful perspectives on life. When he heard that I had opened up a whole wheat bakery in Chicago, he came up to talk to me and offer his help. He said, “I want to learn how to bake good bread,” and I said I would teach him what I know.
I had no money to pay Randy a salary so he came to live with me in the bakery. In order to conserve funds, I was living in the bakery and sleeping on a mat in a small office space left by the former tenant. Randy chose to bunk in a loft area I had built above the oven, which was nice and warm in the winter. We got up early in the morning and began our work together.
East Rogers Park, where the bakery was located, had been a Jewish neighborhood at one time and I wanted to bake Challah, a traditional Jewish bread. Randy was our resident expert on things Jewish, and he taught me how to pronounce the name correctly, although I could never get it quite right. The “ch” is pronounced as an “h” coming deep from the back of the throat.
I first baked Challah using all whole wheat bread flour, but we found it too dense, dark, and heavy, and this did not suit the character of the bread. We began using 50% unbleached white flour in the bread and we were happier with the end result.
1 cup lukewarm (105 – 115oF) water
1 teaspoons dry yeast
1/4 cup honey
2-1/2 cups whole wheat flour Egg Wash
2-1/2 cups unbleached white flour 1 egg yolk, beaten
2 teaspoons salt 1-1/2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons oil
3 whole eggs, beaten
1 egg white
- Proofing the Yeast: Pour the lukewarm water into a bowl, sprinkle the dry yeast on the water, add the honey, and stir until dissolved. Wait 8-10 minutes until the yeast begins to grow and create a tan-colored foam.
- Mixing the Dough: Add 1 cup whole wheat flour to the water and stir to form a homogenous batter. Add more flour on top of the batter and place the salt, beaten eggs, melted butter, and oil on the dry flour, mixing this into the batter. Continue adding the rest of the wheat and unbleached white flour, reserving 1/2 cup for kneading, and mix to form a stiff dough.
- Kneading the Dough: Dump the dough in the bowl onto a floured work surface. By pushing on the dough with both hands, form the dough into a ball and incorporate the fragments and loose flour into the ball. Knead this dough for 10 minutes, adding as little flour as possible to the work surface and the ball if the dough sticks to the surface or your hands.
- The First Rise: Clean and dry the bowl. Sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoons oil on the bottom of the bowl and place the dough into the bottom of the bowl and flip it over once so that the entire surface of the dough is lightly covered with oil. Place the bowl in a warm, non-drafty place and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for 1-1/3 hours. This soft dough rises quickly.
- The Second Rise: Remove the towel from the bowl and gently press on the dough which has doubled in size to deflate it. Flip the dough over so the moist bottom is now on top. Place the damp towel back over the bowl and let rise for 45-60 minutes.
- Shaping the Loaf and the Final Rise: Remove the towel over the bowl and gently press on the dough to deflate. Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on the work surface. Cut the dough in two equal pieces, shape each half into a rough ball, and let them rest 10 minutes to relax the gluten in the dough.
Challah is typically braided, and it can be braided with 3 to 6 strands. To braid with three strands, cut one ball of dough into three equal pieces, roll each piece into a rope about 12 inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter, and lay the three ropes parallel to each other with about an inch between each rope. Starting in the middle of the ropes lay the rope from one side over the center rope. Now take the rope from the other side and lay this over the new center rope. Continue laying the side ropes alternately over the center rope until one half the loaf is braided. Pinch the ends of the braids together and tuck under the end of the loaf. Now beginning in the middle of the loaf, braid the other half of the loaf using the same method of alternately laying the side rope over the center rope.
Place the two loaves on a flat metal baking sheet covered with cornmeal or oil.
Brush the egg wash evenly on each loaf. The loaves may be sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. Cover the loaves with a damp cloth and place in a warm, non-drafty place and allow to rise 20 minutes until soft and puffy. Pre-heat the oven to 350oF during this rise.
7. Baking the Loaves: When the loaves have risen remove the towel and place the pan on the center rack in the middle of the oven. Bake for 45 minutes until both the top and bottom of the loaves are browned, and are firm to the touch. Remove the pan from the oven and place the loaves on a wire rack to cool.