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 🙂


Soft Pita Breads

(and a BONUS recipe!)

This recipe has become one of my go-to breads. It’s simple to make and doesn’t require use of the oven, which is great when the weather is warm. This is an adaptation of a recipe from King Arthur Flour. Theirs is great, but I always substitute a portion of whole wheat flour into the recipe, and I add milled flax seed and onion flavor to this one as well. It’s an unusual style of recipe, which begins with “cooking” some of the flour with boiling water. This unique method, and the addition of potato flakes, results in a very soft, bendable pita bread—perfect for gyros or souvlaki wraps, but you can also cut them into wedges and drag through a bowl of fresh hummus. Yum!

Ingredients

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided* (see notes)

1 cup whole wheat flour* (I use KAF’s white whole wheat)

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1/2 cup dried potato flakes*

1 tsp. milled flax seed (optional)

1 1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. instant yeast*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

*Notes

Accurately measure the flour by fluffing it, spooning it into measuring cup, and leveling off.

Look for potato flakes without added ingredients (Whole Foods has them). Or use real cooked potato and only 3/4 cup water in the recipe, and use the potato cooking water.

Instant yeast does not behave in the same way as active dry yeast, which needs to be “proved” first. Dissolve active dry yeast for five minutes in a few tablespoons of warm water, and reduce the overall water in the recipe by the same amount. If your yeast doesn’t become foamy during this step, it’s dead (I’m so sorry for your loss). Next time, keep it in the freezer.

Instructions

Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and the whole wheat flour into a mixing bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. Mix with a heavy spoon (or use a stand mixer) until combined and smooth. This is going to feel a little bit like paste, but trust me, they will turn out great. Cover and allow mixture to rest 30 minutes.

Combine the remaining all-purpose flour with rest of the dry ingredients and add to the cooked flour paste. Mix until fully incorporated, then add olive oil to the mixing bowl and knead several minutes until dough is smooth and supple. Shape dough into a ball and allow it to rise, covered, in a lightly oiled bowl about 1 hour until it is puffy. If it doesn’t bounce back when you poke it, you’re ready to proceed. If it giggles, well…

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gently deflate, and cut into eight pieces. Shape the pieces into balls, then cover with a clean towel and allow them to rest 15 minutes. This gives the gluten time to relax so the dough is easier to roll.

Heat a griddle or dry skillet over medium-low heat (about 325° F). While surface is heating, roll out one dough ball at a time (on floured surface) into a thin circle, about 8 inches across. Cook about 1 minute on the first side or until you see toasty flecks on the bottom. Carefully turn to cook the other side 1 minute. The pita breads will puff up quite a bit on the griddle while the second side is cooking. Remove them to a wire rack.

These are best enjoyed right away, but you can also cool them completely and store in a tightly sealed bag at room temperature for about 4 days. King Arthur says you can freeze them, but I’ve never tried it because we always devour them within a day or two. Leftovers (if you have them) are great as scrambled egg wraps.

But wait, there’s MORE!

Souvlaki Bonus Recipe

There’s so much flavor in these tasty little bites, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make them. They’re mouthwateringly lemony, packed with Mediterranean herbal flavor, and versatile. Serve them on soft pita breads with tzatziki or on top of a Greek salad. They’re also not bad eaten cold, straight from the fridge. Or, so I’ve heard. Give the marinade plenty of time to work its magic—the results are definitely worth the wait!

Ingredients

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast*

Juice of 1 large lemon

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

3 or 4 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

*This marinade is also delicious on pork. Cut up 1 pound of lean pork loin and proceed as for chicken. It would be tasty on shrimp also, but reduce the marinating time to 1 hour and shorten cooking time as well.

Instructions

Cut chicken breast into bite-size chunks and add them to a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture, whisking constantly, until it’s combined. Pour marinade over the chicken pieces and toss to coat, then cover and refrigerate several hours to overnight.

Preheat gas grill to 400° F. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers or use a grilling pan. Discard remaining marinade. Cook chicken 12 to 14 minutes, turning to cook all sides, until edges are lightly charred and crispy, and juices run clear. Enjoy on a Greek salad or soft pita breads.

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Sourdough English Muffins

Who doesn’t love an English muffin? It’s a terrific change-up from the usual toasted bread for breakfast, and at our house, we’re eating a lot of them lately. They’re quick and simple to make, with or without a stand mixer, and you don’t even need to turn on your oven. My recipe makes 12, and though that may seem like a lot for one household, I’ll note that these muffins aren’t just for breakfast. They also make exceptional burger buns, and my husband uses them to make sandwiches to take to work for lunch, too!

My inspiration recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, my favorite brand. And while I would certainly disclose any financial agreements with vendors, I will be clear to say that KAF is not paying me to brag about their products (not yet, anyway, but I’m open, baking team). I just like them, and I trust their website for products, baking ideas and help when I need it.

Their recipe for Sourdough English Muffins does require the use of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, and although it typically calls for addition of commercial yeast (for quicker rise), it’s possible to omit it, and I’ve adjusted for that in my notes below. If you don’t have a starter, their yeast-risen English muffins are great, too. It’s tough to find yeast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you happen to have some in your pantry, you’re golden. Here’s a tip—you can ration your yeast by halving the amount called for in the recipe; just give it more time to rise. This is true for virtually any yeast recipe, by the way.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Because the KAF recipe yields 24 English muffins (holy moly, that’s a lot!), I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting all the ingredients by half. Additionally, I always swap in some portion of whole grain flour in place of white, and I usually add some milled flax seed because I cannot leave well enough alone. You decide, based on your own experience and comfort level. If you notice grainy spots in my technique photos, this is the reason. They literally are grainy spots.

When these are completely cooled, you can put them in a sealed plastic bag. They’ll keep on the counter for up to a week, or you can put them in the freezer. No need to thaw them before toasting.

I hope they turn out great for you!

Ingredients and Tools

(weight measurement included for seasoned bakers; if you’re baking these for the first time, please see notes section for tips on the best way to accurately measure your flour for baking)

1/2 cup (114g) ripe sourdough starter* (stirred down before measuring – see notes)
1 cup (227g) warm filtered water (ideally, about 110° F)
1/2 tsp instant yeast (optional, for quicker rise)
1 Tbsp. (12g) sugar
3 1/2 cups (422g) all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring and substitutions)
1/4 cup (22g) nonfat dry milk* (see notes if you don’t have this)
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. (28g) butter, room temperature
Additional flour for dusting counter for kneading
Cornmeal for dusting muffins before baking

*Notes

  • If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use this method for accurately measuring flour in baking
  • For sourdough science nerds who may be wondering, my starter is 100% hydration; I feed it (once or twice a week) 90/10 high protein bread flour/freshly milled rye flour
  • You may substitute whole wheat flour up to 1/3 of the total amount of flour
  • If you don’t have nonfat dry milk, adjust the water to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup regular milk along with it

Stand mixer or large bowl and heavy wooden spoon
Plastic wrap and clean lightweight kitchen towels
Electric griddle or pan for stove-top “baking”
Heat-safe spatula for turning
Cooling rack for finished muffins

Instructions

In a mixing bowl, bring your starter to room temperature, or at least allow some of the refrigerator chill to wear off. Combine with warm water until it’s an even slurry, and stir in the sugar (and instant yeast, if using) a minute or so to dissolve sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, dry milk and sea salt until well blended. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a heavy wooden spoon or blend in stand mixer until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Switch to kneading hook or turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Knead until the dough feels a little less shaggy and more organized. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest about 20 minutes.

Stretch out the dough and spread the soft butter over it. The KAF recipe suggests adding the butter at the start, but I’ve learned to add fats after the flour is fully hydrated, so this is my method. Fold the dough up with butter inside and continue kneading, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 to 6 minutes by machine with dough hook. This part will get messy, but keep at it and eventually, the butter will work its way through the entire dough. You want smooth and even dough—soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. Shape dough into a tight ball (if you imagine squeezing it around and toward the bottom, you’ll get a feel for this), place it in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or lid and let it rise at room temperature until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in size. If your room is warm and you used additional yeast, this will be about 60 minutes. If you didn’t use yeast, it may be a couple of hours—give it the time it needs. Gently deflate the dough by pushing the center with your closed fist (one day soon, I’ll explain why I hate the term “punching down your dough”). With lightly oiled hands, reshape it into a ball, cover the bowl and put it into the refrigerator overnight. This step is beneficial either way, but especially important if you did not add yeast. Sourdough bakers already know that cold fermentation is a magical thing, and this down time in the fridge will result in extra flavor and improved texture.

In the morning, turn the cold dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it into 12 roughly equal pieces. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is the cut the ball in half, then each half into halves, and each resulting half into thirds, like 12 little pieces of pizza. Shape each wedge into a tight ball, and flatten each ball with your fingertips onto a piece of parchment paper, sprinkled lightly with corn meal. They should measure about 3 1/4” across, or the size of—you guessed it—an English muffin! You will probably want to do two cookie sheets, each holding 6 muffins. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional corn meal.

If the dough is still cold, it will probably shrink back—that’s OK. Cover them with plastic and let them rest 15 minutes to relax the gluten, then flatten them again. Cover the muffins with loose plastic wrap, lay a clean lightweight kitchen towel over the plastic and allow the muffins some privacy in a warm (but not hot) spot in your kitchen. I usually slide the pans into the oven, where it’s quiet and not at all drafty.

About 2 hours later, your muffins should look soft and puffy. My last batch rose to about 1/2” thickness, but they will puff more when you introduce them to heat.

If you have an electric griddle, heat it to about 325° F. If not, you can do it stove-top in a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Our gas range has a “griddle in the middle” that allows me to do 6 muffins at a time; in a skillet, you’ll probably want to limit to 3 at once. I kept the flame pretty low because it’s better to cook them a tiny bit longer than to burn them.

I squeezed my camera underneath the griddle so you can see how low I set the flame. If you’re cooking your muffins stove-top, give the pan or griddle plenty of time to reach consistent heat.

When the griddle or pan is radiating consistent heat (you should be able to feel it easily with your hand about 6” above), gently place the muffins onto the surface. They will puff a bit more as they cook, but they won’t spread outward the way cookies do. Still, try to keep a bit of room between them so you can wiggle in a spatula when it’s time to turn them over.

After about 7 minutes, your muffins are probably ready to turn. Check by gently lifting up one edge and peeking underneath. If it looks golden and toasty, it’s time! Gently turn them without flipping too hard—you don’t want to deflate them in the process.

Give the second side about 6 more minutes, then check for doneness and remove them to a cooling rack to calm down. The sides of the muffins will still feel a bit soft, and that can be a little unnerving until you’ve made them a few times. Here’s a simple tip for testing doneness: when you turn over the first muffin, tap the cooked side lightly with your fingernail or the tip of your spatula. If it sounds hollow, you’re good. If it still feels a little soft or spongy, they probably need another minute. To be certain, you can slide the finished muffins onto a cookie sheet and into a pre-warmed 350° F oven for a few minutes to finish any raw insides.

When the muffins have completely cooled (and please, not one second sooner), use the tines of a fork to split through to the middle, all the way around.

Fork-splitting the muffins creates a perfect texture inside, and ensures plenty of pockets for butter or jam. Be certain they are completely cool before splitting them.

This will allow you to easily break them open later, for the beautiful nooks and crannies that I’m probably not allowed to talk about because of trademark rules.

But just look—can you think of a better way to describe those butter-loving pockets?

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