Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

When I set out in 2011 to learn the terrifying skill of bread making, my primary goal was to have the welcoming aroma waft out of my oven and throughout the house. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? My first few attempts were pretty confused, with some downright inedible, but also with a couple of winners that were probably accidental. I finally got good at making the simplest bread of all time, the English muffin loaf, a minimal ingredient recipe which requires no kneading and is really hard to screw up. And then, me being me, I decided to go ahead and up my game without first mastering the basics of real kneaded bread. It’s just what I do, setting the bar very high for myself. Perhaps the result of being raised by a perfectionist father and impossible-to-please mother? That is a motive I’ll leave to my therapist for analysis.

“I’ll make artisan loaves,” I declared, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I had my first successful artisan boule (a bread nerd’s term for a round crusty bread made without a loaf pan), I charged forward with another idea—that I would henceforth make only sourdough bread. As I have mentioned in a previous post, “sourdough” is commonly (though incorrectly) assumed to be a flavor of bread, but it is more accurately understood as a leavening method. The process begins with creation of a culture that you feed regularly, only flour and water and nothing else, and the culture replaces commercial yeast. For me, this began in early 2016.

My sourdough culture does the same work as the recognizable yellow yeast packets, but in twice the time (you have to be patient, which means it’s been a learning experience for me) and resulting in five times the flavor of bread that is produced with commercial yeast. Sourdough is a fussy thing to learn (with lots of math involved), but once the light bulb goes off and you understand how to relate to it, there’s no going back. This is exactly the thing I’ve wanted my whole life—a relationship that is so solid, there’s no going back. Thank you, God.

Somewhere along the way of making sourdough bread, however, I lost a bit of my gumption and started playing it safe—making only a few “safe” sourdough breads, or the ones that worked out just right every time. The potato onion sourdough loaf that is easy to shape because you do it while the dough is cold, and it stays so soft and is perfect for my husband’s beloved tuna salad sandwiches. The sourdough rye loaf that seems to work backward from all the other loaves, in that the sponge (nerd speak for “wet starter”) contains the full amount of water for the recipe, but somehow the bread comes out perfect every time. The “basic” sourdough loaf from my Peter Reinhart book that is supposed to emerge from the oven with a crackling crust, but mine only did so on my very first try, giving me a confidence that I hadn’t yet earned. And the sourdough challah, which many experienced bread makers have doubted is even possible, given that challah dough is sweetened with a good deal of honey, which tends to put the whole process into even slower motion than sourdough already does. But I’ve made sourdough challah successfully for two years, though only for celebration of the big Jewish holidays that allow leavened bread: Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.

Still, I wanted to push it further and make a pumpkin challah, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet. Except none were made by way of sourdough, and so that became the new high bar for me. For two years, I kept this challenge off in the distance, lest I be disappointed in the outcome. If you’ve ever baked with pumpkin, it was probably muffins or quick bread or something that is intended to be soft and kind of crumbly in texture. I’ve tried making chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin, and they were tasty, but cake-y and more like muffin tops than cookies (let’s not discuss what they did to my own muffin top). I made a successful sourdough pumpkin artisan boule a couple years ago, and it was delicious, but dense. I really, really wanted a sourdough pumpkin challah.

Fast forward to this week, and this gorgeous, swirly slice of sourdough perfection.

All that pumpkin! And swirls of maple sugar and warm autumn spices.

Introducing pumpkin to the mix is complicated for several reasons. First, I had to speculate how much moisture vs. bulk to account for in the pumpkin puree, because I had to create my own recipe and formula. Secondly, the fibrous nature of pumpkin puree contradicts the stretchy gluten structure of bread; the puree is wet, but it isn’t liquid. Challah is made with several eggs and oil—in its classic form, it should be light and soft inside, with a delicately chewy crust. With so much adjustment, coupled with long ferment times, I was sure that I’d fail in this venture. I hate to fail. But if failure is inevitable, I will go down in flames. Dramatic? Welcome to my mind.

The trouble is, I didn’t fail. No, I definitely did not.

The round braided loaf has a maple-spice swirl, and the braided wreath is filled with a blend of dried fruits: cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries and cherries.

This first attempt at making a naturally leavened pumpkin challah had me on pins and needles from start to finish, but these two loaves far exceeded my expectations. And, just in time for Rosh Hashahah! My loaves are round in shape to symbolize the new year, and coming around full circle. I cannot wait to make French toast this weekend. Imagine the bread pudding possibilities! I feel like a proud mama, showing off pictures of a new grandbaby.

“Do I smell pumpkin?”

I’m so excited, I want to run to the market and buy every can of pumpkin puree on the shelves. The next round of sourdough pumpkin challah for everyone is on me! Wait, maybe I’ll grow the pumpkins and cook them myself—that may become the next high bar? No, perhaps I shall make it again a few more times to be sure my formula is correct. And though I know that most of my followers here will not ever roll up their sleeves and make this bread (except my fellow sourdough nerds, for whom I’ve presented my formula and notes in PDF at the end), for now, I am delighted to show you the pictures of my journey. Thank you for looking. 😀

Happy fall, everyone, and “shanah tovah!”

For bread nerd eyes only 🙂

5 thoughts on “Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

  1. Pingback: Autumn Weekend Brunch | Comfort du Jour

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.