Challah Bread

Sliced challah

My friend Anna is a terrible influence. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about her, usually by her nickname “culinary-school-dropout.” Even though she didn’t finish the program with me, Anna still loves food and loves to cook and is usually the person accompanying me to various small, ethnic restaurants around the city. The other thing you need to know about Anna is that she’s obsessed with buying cookbooks, that’s where the bad influence comes in.

Brush with egg wash

Last week we ate lunch at TAC Quick (the most amazing tom kha soup, by the way). Afterwards Anna suggested going to Borders to look at the cookbooks. I agreed but on the condition that she didn’t allow to buy any (I have plenty, too). After an hour and a half of browsing the cooking section, I was hooked on a new book that I just HAD to have: The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion: the All-Purpose Baking Cookbook. This purchase was a necessity, I didn’t have any good all-around baking books, besides, Anna bought two!

There are many recipes in the book that I can’t wait to try: the blueberry buckle, herbed dumplings, whole wheat loaf, fudge drops, etc. But I decided to start with my sister’s favorite bread: challah.

Challah loaf

Although I’ve made challah before, I didn’t have a recipe I truly liked. The one we followed in culinary school bastardized this enriched bread by adding lemon and orange zest  – ugh. For me, a great challah should be soft, slightly sweet, and void of any add-ins like zest or raisins. And the few other recipes I’ve tried were a little ‘eh.

So, how did the King Arthur recipe compare? For that I’d have to refer you to my sister, the challah expert, who wrote: “It was very good. I only got a few pieces before Jeff managed to eat it all. I really like it and thought it was sweet. It has my expert seal of approval.”

On that note, here’s the recipe, which is truly much easier to make than it may seem:

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Very Mandelly Mandel Bread

Hold onto your hats – and scarves, gloves, etc. (okay, bad joke) – this may shock you: I never really liked mandel bread, or mandelbrot, a quintessential Jewish food. I grew up eating lots of matzo ball soup, brisket, and all the typical dishes, but rarely had mandel bread and when I did I found it too bland and dry.

Wet ingredients

Then, about six weeks ago, I was working on an article for the Pioneer Press Newspapers (read “The Family Cookie“) about a new company that sells only mandel bread. During the interview they offered me a sample to try. I couldn’t believe it – this biscotti-like cookie was delicious! It had a crisp buttery texture (although no butter was used) and was subtly sweet. They offered many flavors but I found myself drawn most to the almond, the traditional flavor (mandelbrot literally translates to “almond bread”). I liked it even better than the chocolate chip, if you can believe that.

Pouring wet into dry Mixing in almonds

I started to wonder if I could make this myself, and if it would be as good. This past weekend I finally had the opportunity to try so I could bring it to my family’s early Hanukkah celebration. And I got my answer: yes, I could make a very good mandel bread that my family quickly devoured, and no, it wasn’t as good as the professionals’.

Dough on floured surface First baking

But it was awfully fun to make. My recipe is below if, like it is for me, the journey is the reward (if not, order yours and make your life easy).

Second baking Cooling mandel bread

The only complaint about the mandel bread was that it tasted sort of like the almond cookies given for dessert in Chinese restaurants, although I believe the relative who said this meant it as a compliment. I have to say I agreed a little – I think I went too far with the almond extract so I changed the recipe to use half as much.

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Kugel-Off 2008 Winner: Congratulations Cheryl

Kugel Winner

This year’s break-the-fast was a bit more eventful than usual with the first-ever kugel-off, a mostly friendly competition determined to see which kugel would trump the others. With eight entrants, the competition was stiff. However, despite all the different varieties of kugels available, these could be placed into just two categories: noodle dessert and noodle sweet-savory (meaning as savory as possible with a noodle pudding). Surprisingly, there were no potato kugel entrants.

Six of the eight were from family members who were present, the remaining two from generous friends who wanted to participate. One of them, Cheryl Adolph, was the winner with kugel #8. You can find her delectable winning recipe below.

How it worked

Kugel sampling

The kugels were each heated and then placed on paper plates numbered K1 to K8 (“K” for kugel, just because I felt like it). All guests, except those who entered the contest, were asked to sample all the kugels and then write the number of their first choice on a card and place it in a bowl. The results were then tabulated by an accountant (my sister Marci), just like the Oscars.

All-in-all the event went smoothly, the only disruption coming after a competitive aunt tried to help by removing the number cards from the now-empty plates. Unbeknownst to her, the baker’s names were taped to the bottom of the plates, resulting in a chaotic few minutes of trying to remember which kugel went with which number. Luckily, cousin Barry was there to break the tension by proclaiming: “let’s not let kugel divide the family.”

Not to worry, we consulted the photos I’d taken earlier and got everything sorted out before announcing Cheryl as the winner. Read more of this >>

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Family Kugeloff ’08

Good kugel is really good – really, really good! Bad kugel is just disappointment. And trust me, not all kugels are created equal. Luckily, my mom makes a kick-ass kugel that is more savory than sweet. Yeah, I know, your mom also makes the best kugel, or your grandmother does, or heck, maybe yours is the best.

This is why I’m proposing a Kugeloff at my family’s Yom Kippur break-the-fast in a few weeks. True, this isn’t exactly my call as I’m not the host, but it seems like good clean fun, not to mention (hopefully) good food so why not?

The only problem: if my mom’s going to make her kick-ass kugel, then what will I make? While I take the next two weeks to create the perfect kugel, I’m hoping you readers will send me your favorite recipes to add to the mix.

Kugel,  a traditional Jewish baked pudding, is complicated with many aspects to consider. First of all, how is it pronounced? Some say KOO-guhl, I say KUH-guhl. Are we talking noodle or potato? Will it serve as a side dish/savory or dessert/sweet? Which leads to the final consideration: raisins or no raisins?

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