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background: fig honey challah; foreground: rosemary apricot challah.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have “normal” foods in the house. For “normal” foods like poptarts or Kudos breakfast bars I would have to go to my best friend’s house down the street.  I thought carob was just bad chocolate until I was about ten when I wizened up.  According to my mother, everything had MSG. So I was forced to drink the organic sodas (i.e. flavored seltzer) and eat tofu pudding.  Her tofu spaghetti  was what I disliked the most.

Tofu spaghetti, you may ask, is exactly what it sounds like: Make some spaghetti (in her case, it was probably soba or whole grain too), then make a marinara sauce, and mix it up with crumbly tofu.  Serve.  My sister loved tofu spaghetti!  In fact, everyone seemed to love tofu spaghetti…twenty years later I am still convinced I was being punked.

So when I came home one day when I was eleven years old and wanted to make a challah, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we didn’t make any regular challah, but a whole wheat sugar free challah.  It was a complete and utter failure.  Have you ever tried to have yeast rise without sugar?  I can’t even remember if we gave it the time to fully rise or it very obviously didn’t, so my mother kindly “lied” to me and said it was supposed to look like that.  We left it on the counter for the second rise for hours while we went out for dinner. When we returned, it almost looked necrotic.

Worst.challah.ever.

I decided from that moment on that I would never bake challah ever again.

But something about being away from home, I forgot about my failed challah…  There’s a metaphor in here somewhere…

Rosemary Apricot Challah

(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Yield: 1 large loaf

Ingredients:

Bread
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet — 1/4 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/3 cup (80 ml) infused olive oil, plus more for the bowl* (see below)
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour

Fig Filling
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried apricots
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest, or more as desired
1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice

1 tablespoon finely diced fresh rosemary
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
Few grinds black pepper

Egg wash
1 large egg
Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

Directions:

** Infused rosemary olive oil: Place a handful of sprigs of fresh rosemary in a closed container with the olive oil.  Let rest in a cool dry place for a couple of days, or as long as possible.  This gives the bread a lovely rosemary aroma without the little pieces in the bread.  If you like the pieces skip this step and just mince up some rosemary and add it straight to the dough.

  1. Whisk the yeast and 1 teaspoon honey into 2/3 cup warm water (110 to 116 °F), and let it stand for a few minutes, until quite foamy.
  2. In a large mixer bowl, combine the yeast mixture with remaining honey, 1/3 cup olive oil, and eggs. Add the salt and flour, and mix until dough begins to hold together.
  3. Turn the mixture out onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed.
  4. Transfer the dough to an olive-oil coated bowl (or rest the dough briefly on the counter and oil your mixer bowl to use for rising, so that you’ll use fewer dishes), cover with plastic wrap.
  5. Set bowl of dough in a room temperature oven.  On the lower rack place a small bowl of boiling water.  Close oven and let dough rise to nearly double in size for the next hour.
  6. Meanwhile, make apricot paste:
    1. In a small saucepan, combine the apricots, zest, 1/2 cup water, juice, rosemary, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apricots are soft plump and tender, about 10 minutes. (my apricots did not become tender enough with only 1/2 cup of water, so I added an additional half cup during simmer)
    2. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Process apricot mixture in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  If you are like me, and don’t have a food processor, mush tender apricots with a fork and then make into paste by smushing with the back of a spoon…personally I prefer this texture better than a smooth jam).
  7. After your dough has risen, punch down dough and return to cool oven with a fresh bowl of boiled water.
  8. Turn it out onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Roll the first half of the dough into a wide and totally imperfect rectangle (really, the shape doesn’t matter). Spread half the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge. Roll the dough into a long, tight log, trapping the filling within. Then gently stretch the log as wide as feels comfortable.  Divide it in half. Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling.
  9. Weave your challah: Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move the leg to their right — i.e., over the perpendicular leg to their right. Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round.
  10. Transfer the dough to a parchment-cover heavy baking sheet, or, if you’ll be using a bread stone, a baker’s peel. Beat egg until smooth, and brush over challah.  Let challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 180°C/375°F. (at this point you can also put in the refrigerator for a few hours to enhance and marry the flavors.  Remove from  fridge and return to room temperature prior to baking)
  11. Bake your loaf: Before baking, brush loaf one more time with egg wash and sprinkle generously with sea salt. Bake in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes.  At this point, stop whatever you are doing and enjoy the intoxicating smell.
    1. It should be beautifully bronzed; if yours starts getting too dark too quickly, cover it with foil for the remainder of the baking time. The very best way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer — the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees.  (if you’re like me and don’t have one… I have no suggestions than to go by your instinct.  My middle was slightly uncooked after 40 minutes).
  12. Cool loaf on a rack before serving… Or… well, good luck with that.
  13. Eat and enjoy
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