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Tonight the mother-in-law came home to discover the kitchen table laden with parsnip peelings, apple skins and egg shells. In the run up to Chanukah, I’d been experimenting with the humble latke. In truth, this scrumptious Jewish potato pancake – traditionally made combining grated potato and egg – doesn’t need meddling with. I mean it has been around for, like, a few hundred years. But I’d run out of potatoes.

Customarily devoured over Chanukah (as the oil they are fried in is symbolic of the miracle of the ever-lasting oil that burnt in the Second Temple in ancient Jerusalem), the latke is, in short, a sort of eggy rösti for those of you who are more au fait with Scandanavian cuisine. Imagine a bunch of chips getting together for an orgy in a non-stick pan… THAT is a latke. And anything that can be eaten with soured cream or apple sauce or salt beef gets a thumbs up in my book.

Prior to the introduction of the potato to Europe in the late sixteenth century, latkes were made using whatever vegetables, legumes, flours and cheeses were locally available to the Jewish communities at that time. In some communities, this still rings true. Being a fan of the local and seasonal club, I like the idea of employing the same ethos when making my latkes; as in tonight’s case, whatever was readily available in our larder during the five o’clock rush to get the offspring’s dinner on the table. (Or in Reuben’s case, on the floor. But he’ll get there.)

Along with the gorgeous Burford Brown eggs that I covet so, I had some muddy parsnips and russet apples at my disposal. I wanted to add a spice to the mix to perfume the latkes, so I scattered some fennel seeds into the raw egg seeing that both aniseed fennel and creamy parsnip are members of the same apiaceae (goodness knows how you pronounce that one) or carrot family (for us commoners).

After taking what seemed like 2 hours to work out how to affix the grater attachment to the mother-in-law’s food-processor (I probably would have saved time – although maybe not a finger – using the hand-grater), I whizzed up three parsnips and two apples (both peeled), and stirred these raw sticks into a bowl of two beaten eggs. After adding a couple of teaspoons of fennel seeds, a good twist of black pepper and a sprinkling of sea salt, I wet my hands and turned palmfuls of the mixture into flat patties, which were then browned (on both sides) in a hot pan of groundnut oil.

The latkes were delicious: a nice balance of sweet parsnip, tart apple and aniseed fennel. But I think they can be improved… so hold out for the next latke installment before the festivities begin.

Glossary
:
Chanukah – the Jewish festival of light. Find out more here
Chips
– french fries for you American folks

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I am very proud of my recipe for challah.  Most importantly, it delivers two beautiful, golden loaves that can be devoured over the course of a weekend.  (We eat one fresh from the oven on a Friday night, and then slice the other on the Saturday morning before dipping in egg, dusting with cinnamon and nutmeg, frying in butter or oil, and dousing with honey or maple syrup.)

Challah is a loaf steeped in Jewish history, folklore and tradition.  It is baked and eaten for the Jewish sabbath and festivals, and reflects the belief to share and make peace within Jewish culture.  Its shape changes form depending on the festivity or community it is made for, as does its flavour.  Claudia Roden writes more about challah here.

Challah1My own recipe uses Dan Lepard’s bread-making methods, which I always favour.  I also prefer to use fresh yeast (also called bakers or cake yeast), which I buy from local artisan bakeries or health food shops, but I have also allowed for dried yeast within the recipe too.  And here’s a nifty little video (it’s like cute frum meets ‘The Brady Bunch’) to show you the many ways you can plait your challah before baking.  (I particularly love this demonstration as Rivka Malka uses plasticine.)

Ingredients

Yeast Sponge
275ml warm water
20g fresh yeast / 1 sachet easy-blend yeast (equivalent to 2 teaspoons or 7g)
275g strong white unbleached bread-making flour

Dough
500g strong white unbleached bread-making flour, plus extra for dusting
125ml vegetable oil, plus extra for kneading and/or oiling baking trays
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 medium eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons honey
1 egg yolk, beaten with a bit of water, for glazing
Poppy or sesame seeds

Method

In a large mixing bowl, add the yeast to the warm water and mix with a fork.  Slowly add the flour, continuing to beat in with the fork, until the mixture has come together.  Cover the bowl with a clean, dry dish cloth and leave somewhere warm for a couple of hours.

After this time, and in another large mixing bowl, beat together the vegetable oil, honey, salt and 3 beaten eggs using a fork.  Then mix in the yeast sponge, followed by the remaining 500g of flour.

Once the mixture comes together use your hands to bring everything together well and then, using a floured surface, knead the dough vigorously for 5 minutes.  You can add more water or flour if you think the mixture is too dry or sticky.

Put the dough back into the bowl and cover for 10 minutes with the cloth.  Repeat this process twice more, using an oiled surface (a teaspoon of oil to cover an area the size of a dinner plate will suffice) but only kneading for a few seconds at a time.  Then cover again and leave for 30 minutes whilst you preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or oil well.  At this point I then divide my dough into two portions (for two loaves), and then divide each of these into four (you will have eight pieces all together) before rolling each piece into a sausage shape ready to plait.  I braid two four-plaited challahs straight onto their baking sheets.  Use this video to help you.

After braiding your bread, cover each tray in a plastic bag until the loaves have doubled in size (about 1-2 hours).  Remove from bags, glaze each loaf with the egg wash, and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds.  Bake in your preheated oven for 30-40 minutes until golden. (You will know when your loaves are ready when they sound hollow if you tap them on the underside.)

Serve just warm and sprinkle with sea salt for a proper shabbes flavour.

I love bread.  I love to make it and I love to eat it.  It is one of the most simple and yet fascinating foodstuffs we humans have been making and eating for thousands of years, and it has massively influenced technology, politics, economics, and art and culture the world over.  I’ve kneaded my way through a variety of breads, doughs and bakes and yet, surprisingly, I’d not attempted a good old-fashioned challah until recently.  Again, it was a bit like the beigel thing; why bother when you live so close to so many traditional Jewish bakeries, whose windows are lined with shelves of gorgeously golden, plaited, yolk-yellow loaves?

But now I live in a city where a pukkah challah is the proverbial needle in a haystack, as I discovered last Friday when I ventured to a wonderful bakery on the other side of the river Avon.  This is the joint where I buy rich ryes and chewy baguettes and, having noticed that they baked challah on a Friday, I thought I’d give one a go for the shabbes table.  Well, I would have forgiven them the emaciated rise, the palid-coloured crust and the extortionate price for a bit of a meh-sized loaf if it actually tasted like challah.  But it didn’t.  In fact, it didn’t even come close to the dear French brioche, as so many imitation, dairy-rich challahs do.  I was, frankly, disappointed.

So I returned to the wonderful ‘Book of Jewish Food’ by Claudia Roden to see what she had to say about this revered loaf (and she always has something amazing to say).  I also browsed the web for some traditional and not-so traditional challah recipes.  Many, including my bread-making hero Dan Lepard’s, ashamedly contain diary, which is not traditional and not the way I wanted to go.  (Although I’m partial to a bacon sarnie, I like to stick to my roots when it comes to cooking Jewish fare.  Just as a supermarket chook doesn’t make a drop of zup anywhere near as good as a koshered boiler fowl, my challah has to be parve and pretty, pretty good.)  But every breaded cloud has a silver crust and between the few recipes that had much to offer, I concocted my very own that makes two honeyed loaves to knock the yarmulke off anyone who tries it.

Here’s how to make the perfect challah.

Glossary:
Zup – soup!
Parve – food that contains neither milk nor meat products (and can therefore be eaten with either milk or meat dishes)
Yarmulke – the skullcap worn by religious Jewish men

It’s been a long time since we last spoke.  I’m really sorry.  I was very busy having a second baby.  Reuben Booben (the ‘Booben’ bit is not actually official, I’m afraid – it merely refers to the fondness he pays me, his mother, during snack times) is nearly seven months old and he’s already noshing away like he’s “been here before”.  Yes, as my mother would say, he is an old soul… and he’s simply remembering just how fun it is to eat good food.

And what else have I been up to these past seven months? I hear you say.  Well, apart from popping out The Booben in the living room of the mother-in-law’s house in a speedy two hours, I have actually been doing a great deal of cooking.  I just haven’t managed to document much of it or shout about it from this here digital rooftop.  (Probably because I also haven’t been getting that much sleep in either.)  But I just miss you so much and I want to tell you about my food.

Oh, and the mother-in-law returned. (Her month-long antipodean adventure and our month-long take-over of her home met their fate in a head-on collision of jet-lag and pregnancy hormones in the middle of the kitchen.  I had, apparently, turned off the AGA in an attempt to turn it down.  It was BURNING THE FOOD, for crying out loud!)  And then went away again, for a month of gayness in Paris.

Anyway, back to the food…

Over the past half a year, I have created an excellent recipe for challah, which I invite you all to make, for you will be anticipating the sabbath every week just to get your hands into the dough and your lips around the sweetest, spongiest bread.  There’s been Baba’s ganoush – Baba is what Zippy calls the mother-in-law – a creamy, lemony aubergine dip that the AGA was built to make.  I made a heavenly Syrian lamb stew with dried limes for Rosh Hashana, which elicited some rather amourous reactions from our dinner guests for it was, apparently, so divine.
We turned our green tomatoes into chutney, our cucumbers into pickles, and the grapes from the century-old vine in the conservatory into grape juice and grape jelly. And, most recently, I whipped up some empanadillas for an impromptu party of seven, to test drive the wonderful new Claudia Roden book of Spanish food given to me by my lovely friends, Sarah and Keith.


Glossary:

Noshing – to eat food enthusiastically or greedily
Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year

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