Phoenix Bakehouse & Astor Apiaries Recipe Testing
This is a guest post by baker and owner of Phoenix Bakehouse, Sarah Hoffman
When people on social media hear about Phoenix Bakehouse, they think we’re in the city of Phoenix, but this one-woman community-supported bakery is right here in Astoria, baking naturally leavened sourdough breads for our neighbors since 2017. So why “phoenix?” Just like the mythical firebird, sourdough, a culture of wild yeast and lactobacteria, rises from itself over and over again, sustaining life since humans first began crafting bread thousands of years ago, and helping to create communities in which that bread was baked and shared.
But not all breads need to be made from sourdough, even if traditionally they were. Sourdough takes an incredible amount of time, and sometimes, especially in times of global pandemics, national tragedy, outrage, and heartbreak, we need comfort quickly. Challah, a traditional Jewish braided, enriched bread, to me, is comforting in its tenderness, especially with the addition of local honey, and in the memories it invokes. Commercial yeast gets the job done quickly, and lets the honey shine. And braiding challah is, in essence, a meditation on humanity, on community, which in this day and age is of such critical importance, and which has always been at the heart of Phoenix Bakehouse.
With the act of braiding dough, we’re coaxing disparate strands together, welcoming them into our hearts and to our hearth. Urging them to rise and bind together. Overlapping, each strand protects the others. You see, beneath the bronzed, lumpy braid, the crumb becomes one; it becomes soft, tender. After all, those strands are all made of the same stuff.
We love to eat slices of challah with cream cheese and maybe an additional drizzle of honey, and it makes a mean breakfast sandwich, and, of course, divine French toast.
The instructions below are for a four-strand challah, but if you’d like to simplify things, a three-strand challah is just as beautiful, meditative, and delicious. Simply divide the dough into three equal pieces instead of four, and braid right to the middle, left to the middle, over and over until the end.
I’ve used Blueberry Blossom Raw Honey here for its slight fruitiness, and because it’s collected in my home state of New Jersey, giving me even greater comfort. But any of their honeys would be a perfect sweetener for this bread. Feel free to add a bit of whole wheat or spelt flour (local, if possible), but keep in mind that you might need to add a bit more water, as they’re thirstier grains than all-purpose. The same is true for bread flour, if that’s what you have. Be judicious and only add the amount recommended at first, and only add more if you are having trouble bringing the dough together and fully hydrating the flour. Keep in mind that the process instructions are merely a guide. Use your senses to determine when the dough is ready to be divided and shaped, and when it is ready to bake. All kitchens and all days are different, and the temperature and humidity will affect your process. But fear not: pulling bread out of your oven, no matter how perfect or imperfect, is an act of love. Make it and then make it again.
- 500g unbleached all-purpose flour
- 200g room temperature water
- 1 egg, 1 egg yolk
- 8g instant yeast
- 8g salt
- 70g Astor Apiaries Blueberry Blossom Honey
- 35g extra virgin olive oil
For the egg wash:
- 1 egg, whisked with 1 tbs water
Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Use your hands, a spoon, or a dough whisk to bring the dough together (your hands are what I recommend, as they’re your greatest tool). When it’s become a homogenous, sticky mass, turn onto a lightly floured counter and, with clean hands, knead the dough until it becomes smooth. It should be tacky to the touch. If it’s sticky, add more flour, a bit more at a time, to reach the desired consistency. Place into a large, clean bowl (I just clean the one I’ve mixed it in), cover, and let rest and rise for 60-90 minutes in a draft-free space.
After the rest, the dough should have risen somewhat and should feel slightly aerated. Turn onto a clean counter and divide into four equal pieces. If it’s sticky, add a bit of flour to your workspace. Press each piece into a rough rectangle, and roll into a short log. Don’t be afraid to press any excess air out. Then, after all pieces are rolled and in the same order in which you rolled them, roll them further into thick, long ropes, about 12-16 inches long, tapering the ends as you roll.
Place each strand in front of you and press the top ends together. In your mind, label the strands 1-4, left to right. Move the outermost left strand (1) all the way over to the right, then move what had been the outermost right strand (4) all the way to the left. Those two strands have switched sides. Now 1 is 4, and 4 is 1. Consider this the setup round. Now take the #4, and move it into the middle, in between strands 2 and 3. Take #2, and move it all the way to the right, replacing the strand you just moved (now 4 is 2, and 2 is 4). Next, take #1, and bring it down to the middle (between strands 2 and 3). Take #3, and move it all the way to the left (now 1 is 3, and 3 is 1). Begin again: move #4 to the middle, then #2 to the right. Continue until you reach the end. Pinch those ends together and tuck them under the loaf.
Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush with egg wash. Let rise in a draft-free place for another 60-90 minutes. If it starts to dry out at all during this time, brush it again with the egg wash.
About 45-60 minutes into this proofing stage, preheat your oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center.
The loaf is ready to be baked when it has noticeably increased in size, and is quite aerated. It should jiggle when you move the baking sheet. Give it another brushing with the egg wash, place it in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. If it’s browning too much before it’s ready, tent it with foil. The bread fully baked when it is a deep golden brown, and if you turn it over and tap on the bottom it should sound hollow. Place it on a cooling rack and let cool before enjoying.