Blame it on Bon Appetit. I’m still not caught up with my myriad magazine subscriptions that I got behind on after moving. While the rest of the world is peeking at new recipes for Christmas; I’m still reading about fall dishes. So call it prophetic that the other day I grabbed the latest issue for a quick moment with morning coffee. Maybe it was the cover photo of some iced shortbread cookies? Although what caught my eye were the rose petals scattered on top of those cookies; that cover looked decidedly more springlike than Christmasy and maybe I thought I had missed it a while back.
By choice I always go to the RSVP section of the magazine first; I have made so many dishes from this section of reader requested restaurant recipes and they’ve never failed me but on this day, before I could even start, the magazine opened to page 100 and there was a photo of a most decadent looking slice of French toast I’ve ever seen. A swirl of chocolate is clearly evident in the bread that has been topped with both syrup and a light dusting of powdered sugar. Developed in BA’s test kitchen by Claire Saffitz; they have suggested that this marriage of the eggy and beautiful Challah with a chocolate threaded Babka will be ‘The Cronut’ for this year. It certainly looked amazing and now that I’ve made it I could get behind that. It’s gorgeous both in it’s finished form and even more so sliced when the surprise of chocolate meets your already salivating senses.
I’ve made one Challah loaf in my years of baking. It tasted great but I was disappointed that a couple of my strands broke apart (I probably wove it too tightly). Despite learning the error of my ways I’ve just never done it again so this was a leap of faith. I’ve never made Babka and I’m not sure the traditional recipe that is filled with candied fruit, raisins and sometimes nuts would have seen me mentally ticking off ingredients, matching those listed with my cupboard stores and deciding, yes I can do this!
An additional inspiration in a very roundabout way might have been my friend Jamie who blogs at Lifes a Feast. Jamie is an expatriate living in the small and beautiful town of Nantes in that mythical country you might know as France. Originally from Florida she is most definitely a hybrid, having lived in Europe her entire adult life. Married to a Frenchman and mother to two grown and also thoroughly French boys she is a passionate baker and makes delicacy after delicacy that I would never endeavor. While I do give away a lot of the sweets that come from my kitchen, I dare say I would have a more difficult time doing that after a half day spent kneading and rising and rolling and more rising and finally baking and CROSSING MY FINGERS it would come out.
So I watch and read and enjoy and am reminded of the days when bread baking was a weekly event (and wondering if I still had it in me). While this bread would be a challenge, Jamie may have also been the final push in another way. When asked to list Christmas delicacies, my sweet Jewish friend had far more Christmas type treats in her repertoire than I did…how could that be? Combine in one day that question with the presentation of this gorgeous marriage of two Jewish favorites and I was helpless to fight the feeling. Unexpectedly it wouldn’t be more Christmas treats but bread baking combined with Challah making all for Christmas day breakfast thrown in for good measure and I was inspired and at work in the kitchen the next day.
If you’ve made Challah, this is easy. If you’ve made Babka, this is easy. If you’ve seldom done either and are combining them together? Well, it’s not hard but I had a couple of moments of indecision. Is the yeast proofed enough? I gave away a bread machine when I moved and haven’t had to worry about milk temp or proofing for a long while; my VERY OLD probe thermometer took this day of baking to die so the temperature of my milk was questionable at best but I trusted my knuckle and seems it worked just fine.
Next, do I roll each braid out to the specs in the main recipe or those given on a separate page on filling them and braiding them (I still don’t know that answer; but it is a BA mistake and I went with the smaller dimension). The biggest concern though was in proofing time. The range in the recipe is a full one hour for both proofs. When the first proof had gone an hour and a half with such a slight change that it had me questioning whether it was working, I worried if I was wasting my time. Still I knew my yeast had not only just been opened but had months of shelf life left so I carried on and viola…checking after 2½ hours saw the result I was looking for. For me, this conservator of energy fiend, I found that turning on the oven for a minute only and putting the covered bread into the warmed oven was key as I think my house might have been too cold. Please don’t tell my daughter, I can hear it now. ‘This house is so cold not even bread can rise!’
Last but not least, and I know this might be sacrilege to say, I wanted my loaf to look prettier than the one in the BA photo. It was too dark in my book; almost on the verge of looking burned. Since baking this bread long enough to have it sound hollow when testing it was critical, I simply covered it lightly with foil once I thought it looked a beautiful golden brown. Much better. The golden hue combined with the sparkle of the sugar it is topped with made for such an elegant result and the best was still hidden inside, waiting for someone to discover the sweetest surprise. Chocolate. Speaking of which? I’ve hoarded a bar of Valrhona Chocolate that I had picked up on a trip months ago to Whole Foods. This was it; the time when I had a recipe deserving of really good chocolate. It was perfect I must admit and while it’s a bit pricey, this was for Christmas morning so deserving of a splurge. Still, it is not a requirement but I do think using a good chocolate is important; after hours of proofing and kneading and tending and watching and kneading some more, you’ll want your end result to be fantastic too.
I am wrapping this tightly and storing it in the freezer for Christmas morning when I might or might not make French toast with it but on that day of baking I offered one small slice to myself and one to my friend Parul who lives next door. She saved half of her slice to take home and share with her family and for that I was the lucky recipient of this adorable photo minutes later; seems someone else loved it too.
It was truly a labor of love and I was taken back to another time and place, when my children were small and bread baking was a weekly ritual that I did love. If I were to wonder how it fell out of favor I’m can only imagine that becoming a single parent when my children were 2 and 6 might have seen a lot of traditions that I loved change as my time to devote to them disappeared. I think it is time for another change. This was a most rewarding effort and I’m both inspired and encouraged by the success of this one simple loaf of bread to find more challenges and create a new tradition just for myself; I enjoyed this far too much to ignore the sense of satisfaction. What shall I do next? Seriously; give me some ideas!