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A Blessing of Bread
Cookbook Review by Norene Gilletz

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Apples and honey bring sweet blessings to the New Year

Maggie Glezer knows there is definitely more than one way to braid a challah! Glezer was captivated by the symbolism and myriad meanings in each twist of the challah’s braid, leading her to years of research and recipe testing.

A Blessing of Bread
by

Maggie Glezer

Artisan
Cdn. $49.95

Order Now from Chapters.Indigo.ca or Amazon.com

The result is her award-winning cookbook, A Blessing of Bread (Artisan). There are more than 60 impeccably tested recipes, old and new, for challah and other Sabbath and holiday loaves, plus an exploration of the rich symbolism of their history and the rituals governing their baking and eating.

Glezer’s outstanding guide to Jewish baking harbours a wealth of recipes for challahs from around the world, babkas and honey cakes, coffee cakes, bagels, matzah, crackers, as well as everyday breads including deli-style rye. Her pita recipes include Israeli Za’atar and Iraqi Pita.

In the challah category alone, you’ll find recipes with more twists, turns and shapes than you can imagine. There are recipes for Czernowitzer, Guatemalen, Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Hungarian challahs, even sweet and sourdough challahs. The book is packed with step-by-step photos to guide both novice and experienced bakers through the intricacies of shaping and baking beautiful, worldly breads.

Working with bakers from Guatemala to Russia, Glezer perfected her recipes, many of which had never been written down. Recollections from Jewish grandmothers and great-grandmothers all over the world remind us of life as it once was, and riveting oral histories, ancient legends, shtetl folktales and proverbs throughout will delight and inspire the baker in us all.

For Rosh Hashanah, there is an unusual recipe for Sephardi Pumpkin Bread, adapted from Gilda Angel’s recipe in Sephardic Home Cooking. Angel writes, “Food made with pumpkin is served to express the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength.”

After much deliberation, I decided to feature Glezer’s Apple Challah, which makes an enticing Rosh Hashanah centrepiece and a much-appreciated gift. It is wonderful for breakfast or with coffee. She cuts the apples into very large chunks to minimize surface area and hence apple juice. She avoids cinnamon to let the apple flavour shine through, but likes to finish off the bread with a sugared crust. Braeburn apples have a good spicy flavour and do not fall apart during baking, but you can substitute any favourite baking apple.

APPLE CHALLAH

2 envelopes instant yeast
5 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
3 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling the pan and for topping
2 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large baking apples, preferably Braeburns (about 41/2 heaping cups cut-up apples)

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast and 1 cup of the flour, then whisk in warm water until smooth. Let stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.

Whisk eggs, oil, salt and sugar into puffed yeast mixture until eggs are well incorporated and salt and sugar have dissolved. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in remaining 4 cups flour all at once. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto work surface and knead until it is smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. If dough is too firm to knead easily, add a tablespoon or two of water to it; if it seems too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. Dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.

Soak a mixing bowl in hot water to clean it and warm it. Place dough in the warmed clean bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Let ferment for 1 hour, or until just slightly puffed.

Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise, then cut each slice crosswise into three pieces. You should end up with large squarish chunks. Measure 4 1/2 heaping cups of chunks and transfer to a covered container. (Braeburns do not brown excessively, but if you are using another variety and are concerned about overbrowning, toss apples with a few drops of lemon juice.)

Sprinkle dough and work surface with flour and pull dough out of the bowl. Cut dough into two equal pieces and keep one piece covered while you work with the other. Roll out dough into a 16-inch square about 1/8 in. thick. Scatter 1 heaping cup of apples over the centre third of the dough. Fold up the bottom third to cover them. Press dough into apples to seal it around them.

Scatter another heaping cup over the folded-over apple-filled portion of dough. Fold the top of dough over it to create a very stuffed letter fold. Press down on dough to push out any air pockets and to seal dough around apples.

Roll dough up from a short side into a chunky cylinder, push dough into bowl with smooth side up, and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with the other piece of dough and put it in a second covered bowl. Let dough ferment for about another hour, or until slightly risen and very soft.

Oil two 8-inch round cake pans, or 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pans. Using as much dusting flour as you need, pat each dough half into a rough round or log shape. Try to keep dough’s smooth skin intact over the top. You won’t be able to deflate the dough much at this point because of the apples. Slip dough into pans, smooth side up, and cover well with plastic wrap. (The shaped loaves can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.) Let the loaves proof until they have risen over the edges of their pans, about 30 minutes (or up to 1 1/2 hours if loaves have been refrigerated.)

Immediately after shaping the breads (or 30 minutes before baking if refrigerated), arrange an oven rack in the lower third position, remove any racks above it, and preheat oven to 350°F.

When loaves have risen and do not push back when gently pressed with your finger but remain indented, brush each one with a generous tablespoon of oil, then sprinkle them with a few tablespoons of sugar to form a sugary-oily crust. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until very well browned. After the first 40 minutes, switch the pans from front to back so that the breads brown evenly. When loaves are done, remove them from the oven, unmould and let cool on a rack. Makes two 9-inch round loaves or two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaves.

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My second selection from the book was an aromatic honey cake that keeps for weeks in the refrigerator. What makes it unusual is that the batter is refrigerated for 8 to 24 hours before baking. The recipe comes from Esther Kramer, who remembers her mother lining their farmhouse’s windowsills with batter-filled pans to chill overnight. Sliced thin, this cake is the traditional dessert after a rich Rosh Hashanah meal, when honey is a symbol of a sweet New Year. Maggie Glezer’s family likes to break the Yom Kippur fast with it as well.

She modified the original recipe by using coffee instead of water and dark brown sugar instead of white. Chopped crystallized ginger adds a rich vibrant spiciness, but can be omitted. If you prefer a more pungent spiciness, you could double the spice quantities given, or add allspice, mace, nutmeg, anise or whatever you prefer. Some people omit the nuts when making this cake for Rosh Hashanah because they refrain from eating nuts on this holiday. Enjoy!

LEKACH (OLD-FASHIONED HONEY CAKE)

6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup mild honey
1 tbsp. salt
2/3 cup hot strong coffee
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups walnut pieces (optional)
1 1/2 cups chopped crystallized ginger, plus small cubes for decorating (optional)

Early in the day or the day before baking, mix the batter. Oil two 9x5-inch loaf pans. In a very large bowl, mix together flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking powder and baking soda.

In a large pitcher or another bowl, whisk together brown sugar, oil, honey (measure it in the same cup as the oil and it will slip right out), salt and hot coffee until sugar and salt have dissolved. Add eggs and whisk until well blended. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until the batter is very smooth and thick. Fold in nuts and ginger, if using them.

Scrape the batter into prepared pans and smooth the tops. For a pretty presentation, press small cubes of ginger across the tops of the cakes. Cover the pans with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or up to 24 hours.

On baking day: 30 minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the lower third position, remove any racks above it and preheat oven to 325°F.

Bake cakes about 1 hour or until well browned and a toothpick or wooden skewer poked into the centre comes out dry. After the first 30 minutes of baking, turn them around so that they bake evenly. Let cakes cool thoroughly in the pans on a rack before serving. Sealed in plastic bags, these cakes keep for weeks in the refrigerator. Makes two 9x5-in. cakes.

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