Baking at my Elbow

My mother used to tell me that you can’t learn how to cook just from reading it in a cookbook. I suppose that was true for my mother. She grew up in a home with a terrible cook, my grandmother. Also my mother was not involved with the process of cooking. My grandmother let my mother know that her job was doing homework.


So when my mother left her mother’s house, not only did she not know how good food was supposed to taste, she didn’t even know how food, good or bad was produced.


I grew up entirely differently. My parents used t0 use the three of us as their sous chefs. We peeled fruits and vegetables, chopped , greased pans, stirred pots and washed pots and pans. If you paid attention, you could also learn how to cook.

My kids have cooked at my elbow for ever. They have absorbed a whole lot about cooking and have ended up being good cooks.


I realize that in writing this blog, and returning to the same foods over and over again some of you readers out there in internet-land can have some of the same over the shoulder experience with cooking that my kids have.

A couple of years ago a neighbor was running a breads from around the world unit in her daughter’s public school class. She asked me  to help her with the challah.


One question Wendy asked me is how you know if the yeast is working. So I will show you what yeast looks like when it is full of pep and will help a batch of dough rise well.


This ugly slurry is  warm water with yeast and spices and a blob of honey and a plop of flour right after all of the ingredients were added to the bowl. The spices are for flavor, and I think the flavors emerge better if they are introduced as soon as possible to the mix. The yeast needs to be fed in order to rise. The honey and flour are yeast food.


Then you go away for a while. I think I may have called my mother. In the old days, a conversation with my mother might have been 45 minutes long. These days it’s harder for her to have a long conversation. She had a procedure yesterday and was tired, so it was a short conversation, maybe ten minutes.


After I got off the phone, my bowl looked like this. It’s ugly but you can see that the yeast is all bubbly.  I then mixed in the rest of the ingredients.


Just a reminder. If you put the oil in the measuring cup first,SAM_1829

then the honey and the eggs don’t stick to the sides of the cup. Yes, I make challah with olive oil.  I used to use canola oil, but I’m like the flavor of olive oil better these days.



If you do something ambitious like baking challah, it’s nice to minimize the number of dishes you need to wash.

I had planned to write this blog about showing the sorts of things that cookbooks describe but you don’t quite get until you have done them a bunch of times.  In the midst of my thinking about how to write this blog post my cousin emailed me with a question. How do you know how long to let a bread rise?


So this is my challah dough about to be put to rise for it’s first rising.

It’s nice and smooth because I have kneaded it a bunch. But it looks, for lack of a better word, a bit tight.


Two or so hours later,


it looks like this. How would you describe it?


I then braided the challot. I’m experimenting with lining the pan with parchment paper. Usually I oil the pans. I am fond of the extra oil in the bottom crust. SAM_1838

I tend to use parchment paper when I bake pita or bagels, so I figured I would experiment.

Between the mixing the dough and the braiding, I set up tonight’s chicken.

I decided to make vaguely Indian chicken. I started out with a commercial curry mixture and then just added more turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, paprika, allspice cumin and coriander.  I  then massaged each chicken pieceSAM_1835SAM_1836 with the mixture. Rubbing raw chicken is kind of gross. But working the spices into the flesh is worth the ick factor. Yes, I do wash my hands really well both before and after.

This is the end result.



And to answer my cousin, this is what challah looks like when it is ready to bake.


And on a side note. Much of the timing of the cooking and baking on Fridays is meant to fold around itself. that is I get the challah going. While it rises I prepare the chicken and put it on the oven.  I also throw the grain into the oven at some point during the chicken baking time. By the time the chicken is cooked, it’s time to bake the challah. Everything gets cooked and I’m not crazed.

I still have to go out and buy vegetable matter.I can’t remember if one of my guests has volunteered to bring dessert or not.   Either way, it’s a good meal.  I can always put out dried fruit and almonds.


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