A reoccurring theme in all that I do is the importance of community – of recognizing the beauty in others and celebrating that beauty over the joy and comfort of a meal prepared as much for the soul as for the stomach. As a child and then a young man, I put little thought into the joy of our family and our neighborhood gatherings. The fact that everyone would be bringing a covered dish was plenty enough pleasing for me. Food meant fun, and fun was good.
My life had always been dominated by food, spending countless summer hours in our family garden picking weeds, hoeing, watering. When we finished in the garden, we pruned in the orchard, we trimmed the grape vines and snuck berries off the current bush. Most of my family lived in homes within an hour of the family farm, but we all worked together evenings after school and weekends, tending the garden.
I knew the effort first hand that went into a meal, and I knew the reward of that effort from the first bite of my mother’s amazing cooking. What I had to grow to realize is why these elements in my life led me to be a chef – and more importantly a chef with a passion for bringing community together to celebrate the beauty of the feast.
Food in my family was a thing of legend. From the time I can remember, my great-grandmother would tell us the stories of Johnny Appleseed and how he planted the first trees in our apple orchard, and how the knarled old cherry tree behind the smokehouse was already an old tree when the house was built 120 years before.
On my father’s side of the family, we owned a grocery store, and before that my grandfather owned a large chicken farm and meat lockers. In our tiny town, my family’s store was such a part of the community that when my grandfather passed away an entire community paid its respects, remembering him for his kindness, for the charity he had shown to others through the family store.
Even today, as I prepare through the week for the weekend’s cooking classes, I watch in our beautiful store, Das Peach Haus, as people smile and laugh while sampling our jams, jellies and sauces. I listen to the ooo’s and umm’s as they bite into a fresh peach cobbler served a la mode with a scoop of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream. And I think of how two families, the Fischers and the Wiesers, came together to create a company that not only is one of its community’s largest employers but has brought so much joy to so many visitors to our small-town oasis.
I hear Mark Wieser tell the stories of working next to his mother as she made jams and jellies, and Case Fischer as he tells with passion and excitement in his voice how hard they worked to get their products to market, and the warm comforting pride that spills into the room as he tells the story of The Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce. These stories resonate within me, and as time goes by I realize they resonate with many others too.
With each of our classes or dinners we have at the cooking school, I hear similar stories. I hear people tell the food highlights of travels abroad. I hear how food has brought joy to people. And I watch as they share that joy over the meal I (and sometimes they) just prepared. All this leads to why I am a chef. Yes, I like to cook food, but more than that I like to bring people together. I love to share with others and I am fueled by the joy and passion that surrounds the table. As a chef I am learning that my true gift is that of compassion and community, and that food is simply the medium that I use.
This month I am including my father’s challah recipe. In my family every Thanksgiving, one of us works with my father to make his famous beautifully braided challah bread and then we share one of the loaves warm from the oven with a pat of butter and a spoonful of jam. I encourage each of you to make this recipe, but more so to do it on a day that you can invite a friend to share it.
Pull it warm from the oven when they arrive, your house filled with its aroma. Celebrate the comfort of friendship with the comfort of a warm treat, and ask your friends how meals have affected their lives. Listen to what they say, and let them know that the world is better with them in it.
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water, divided
1 packet active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup honey
2 tbsp canola oil
2 tsp salt
4 1/2-6 cups flour
1 large egg
1 tbsp cold water
1/2 tsp salt
Pour ¼ cup of the lukewarm water (about 110 degrees) into a large mixing bowl. Add 1 packet of Active Dry Yeast and 1 tsp of sugar to the bowl, stir to dissolve. Wait 10 minutes. The yeast should have activated, meaning it will look expanded and foamy. If it doesn’t, your yeast may have expired, which means your bread won’t rise—go buy some fresh yeast. Once your yeast has activated, add remaining 1 ¼ cup lukewarm water to the bowl along with the egg, egg yolks, honey, canola oil and salt. Use a whisk to thoroughly blend the ingredients together. Begin adding the flour to the bowl by half-cupfuls, stirring with a large spoon each time flour is added. When mixture becomes too thick to stir, use your hands to knead.
Continue to add flour and knead the dough until it’s smooth, elastic, and not sticky. The amount of flour you will need to achieve this texture varies—only add flour until the dough feels pliable and “right.” If you plan to add raisins or chocolate chips to the challah, incorporate into the dough as you knead
Place a saucepan full of water on the stove to boil. Meanwhile, remove the dough from your mixing bowl and wash out the bowl. Grease the bowl with canola oil. Push the dough back into the bottom of the bowl, then flip it over so that both sides are slightly moistened by the oil.
Cover the bowl with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Place the bowl of dough on the middle rack of your oven. Take the saucepan full of boiling water and place it below the rack where your dough sits. Close the oven, but do not turn it on. The pan of hot water will create a warm, moist environment for your dough to rise. Let the dough rise for 1 hour.
Take the dough bowl out and punch it down several times to remove air pockets. Place it back inside the oven and let it rise for 1 hour longer. Take the dough out of the oven. Flour a smooth surface like a cutting board. Punch the dough down into the bowl a few times, then turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Knead for a few minutes, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from feeling sticky.
Now your dough is ready to braid. Separate the dough into three equal sized balls. Roll each ball into a long rope about one inch in diameter then braid ropes to form your loaf. You might also choose two make six equal sized ropes to make two medium sized loafs. If you do not know how to braid, there are many videos available on line with instructions.
After you’ve braided your challah, place it on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (this will catch any spills from your egg wash and keep your challah from sticking to the cookie sheet). Note: I usually only put a single challah braid on a cookie sheet, since they tend to expand a lot when baking. Prepare your egg wash by beating the egg, salt and water till smooth. Use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of the mixture onto the visible surface of your challah. Reserve the leftover egg wash. Let the braid rise 30 to 45 minutes longer. You’ll know the dough is ready to bake when you press your finger into the dough and the indentation stays, rather than bouncing back.
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. The challah needs to bake for about 40 minutes total, but to get the best result the baking should be done in stages. First, set your timer to 20 minutes and put your challah in the oven. After 20 minutes, take the challah out of the oven and coat the center of the braid with another thin layer of egg wash. This area tends to expand during baking, exposing areas that will turn white unless they are coated with egg wash.
Turn the tray around, so the opposite side is facing front, and put the tray back into the oven. Turning the tray helps your challah brown evenly—the back of the oven is usually hotter than the front.
The challah will need to bake for about 20 minutes longer. For this last part of the baking process, keep an eye on your challah—it may be browning faster than it’s baking. Once the challah is browned to your liking, take the tray out and tent it with foil, then place it back in the oven. Remove the foil for the last 2 minutes of baking time.
Take the challah out of the oven. At this point your house should smell delicious. You can test the bread for doneness by turning it over and tapping on the bottom of the loaf—if it makes a hollow sound, it’s done. Let challah cool on the baking sheet or a wire cooling rack before serving. This recipe will make 1 very large challah, 2 regular challahs, or 24 mini challah rolls. I usually divide the dough in half to make 2 medium challahs, which are more manageable and easier to braid than a large one. Choose what works best for you! – Executive Chef Steve Sommers
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