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Gluten-Free Oat Challah

May 7, 2012

Yesterday I facilitated a workshop called Challah Back: A Beit Midrash in the Kitchen for a marvelous group of people. We went through the process of baking challah, step-by-step, and while the dough rose we studied Jewish texts on bread and challah: the Biblical origins of the word challah; why we have two challot on the Shabbat table; why we salt, etc. (interested parties can check out the source sheet here). For this occasion I decided to figure out a gluten free challah that would actually be considered bread.

What do I mean by that? According to Jewish law, bread is only considered bread if it is made from one of the five grains named in the Bible: barley, rye, wheat, oat, spelt. Bread made from other grains can be kosher, but you cannot say hamotzi over it, nor can you take challah from it. And these five grains are precisely the grains that gluten-free eaters avoid. The one exception to this rule is oat, which can be gluten-free for some* if it is grown, harvested, and processed separately from wheat. And that, my friends, is where gluten-free oat challah comes in.

The final step in my research was figuring out exactly how much oat flour I needed to use in order to make this challah worthy of hamotzi and hafrashat challah. A rabbi I consulted suggested that while no teshuva (responsum) has yet been written on this topic, he suggested the oat flour must be at minimum 51% of the total flour in the bread.

(sidenote: I am not a Jewish law scholar by any means. Please consult your rabbi.)

With that, I got to work! I took my standard gluten-free bread recipe and started grinding up some gluten-free oats in my grain grinder. I also increased the honey. By weight, this recipe’s flours are 60% oat. And if I might say so myself, it is mighty delicious and has all the familiar challah tastes and textures: sweet, rich, and just the right amount of chewiness.

a spring picnic with GF oat challah, homemade jam, and massaged kale salad. perfect!

Gluten-Free Oat Challah

1 package active dry yeast (about 1 tbsp)
1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 cup honey (85 grams)
2 eggs (egg-free version: 2 tbsp flax seeds blended with 6 tbsp warm water until frothy)
1/4 cup (50 grams) grapeseed or other vegetable oil
1 tsp cider vinegar
2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp xanthan gum

1 cup (140 grams) tapioca flour/starch
1 1⁄2 cups (200 grams) gluten-free oat flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes it, as does Cream Hill Estates)
1⁄2 cup (40 grams) coconut, quinoa, brown rice, teff, or other gluten-free flour (note: if you use teff flour, you can reduce your xanthan gum to 2 tsp).

Place the yeast and honey in the bottom of the bowl. Cover with the warm water and whisk for 30 seconds to dissolve the yeast. Let the yeast foam and bubble for a few minute. Mix in wet ingredients first (eggs, oil, vinegar) and then add the flours, salt, and xanthan gum. Mix well. Add raisins if you like. Pour into a lightly oiled 9×5 loaf pan and smooth the top. Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. 15 minutes before it’s finished rising, preheat the oven to 375. Remove the dishtowel and bake until golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. Let it cool for a few minutes out of the oven in the pan before removing. Remove to a cooling rack and let cool 30 minutes before slicing.

I have this snazzy braided loaf pan to trick people into thinking I actually braided this challah (gluten-free bread dough is a similar texture to cake batter. Very not-braidable). But any loaf pan will do!

kaiser baking pan

*Note: There are some celiacs who cannot digest oats, so I realize this recipe will not work for those folks.

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part 6: a gluten-free meditation on passover

April 4, 2012

Part 6 (and final) in a series on bread and baking.

This post is not about bread. It certainly has a place in this series, but it is not about bread, or even about baking.

What does it mean to be gluten-free and celebrating Passover? On Passover we clean our homes of hametz, anything yeast-leavened made from the five grain species: barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Anyone gluten-free knows that those are precisely the grains we are already avoiding 365 days per year. The only permissible form of food made from these grains is matzah, which has to be baked for 18 minutes or less. According to Jewish law, Jews are not permitted to own or eat any hametz during the eight days of Passover.

OK, so what. I’m one step ahead of you all!

The focus of Passover for me, growing up, was about restrictions. In addition to the restrictions on bread, pasta, and other yeast-leavened foods, because we were Ashkenazi (descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe), we were also restricted from eating kitniyot, which includes legumes, rice, and seeds. This meant Passover was eight days of being perpetually hungry. For a lot of Jews, Passover is akin to Yom Kippur.

But Passover is also the holiday of spring and rebirth! Such symbolism and beauty.

For me, the last few years of eating gluten-free have also coincided with my own development of a deep love and understanding of local food, which came with a new appreciation for the rhythm of the seasons. In Boston, spring means that crocuses have come up, daffodils are blooming (a little too early this year), perennial greens are returning. It also means that my farmer friends are starting seedlings in their greenhouses, and work crews return to the farm to begin cultivating the soil and readying the land for the new growing season.

Passover has become a time to focus not on food restrictions, but on the miracle of the shifting of seasons that turns snowy fields into homes for thousands of plants in a matter of months.

young beet seedlings

beets begin their initial ascent in the greenhouse, march 2012, at powisset farm, dover, ma

In her book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice writes a chapter on The Egg and its symbolism in spring. On chicken farms, springtime means an increase in egg production, as light stimulates hens’ pituitary gland to produce a hormone that stimulates their ovaries to produce eggs. (My farmer friend M was telling me yesterday that their chickens are producing so many eggs right now that they can’t keep up.). Factory egg farming increases production by lighting the factory 24 hours a day, creating a sort of perpetual summer for the hens. Adding antibiotics to the mix ensures a standard egg production all year round. But at small farms with actual free roaming chickens, springtime is truly when egg production booms.

hens at powisset farm

chickies at powisset farm, dover, ma (photo credit: powisset facebook page)

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

Eggs are a common springtime symbol, including in the big spring holidays of North America, Passover and Easter. Prentice writes, “Eggs, like seeds, are symbolic of hope and of a future that is fertile with life. They are an ancient icon of spring, rebirth, and renewal.”

As we move from winter, the season of scarcity, to spring and summer, seasons of abundance, let’s reframe Passover not as a time of restriction but as one of hope and abundance. Anyone with food restrictions (including gluten) can tell you that life is vibrant, colorful, and more fun when we focus on the abundance of foods that we can eat, instead of the ones we can’t. Enjoy the new greens, the richness of springtime eggs, and revel in the miracle of changing seasons.

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma

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part 5: beauty of/in process

February 29, 2012

Part 5 in a series on bread and baking.

watercolor on paper, by micah bazant

watercolor on paper, by micah bazant

watercolor on paper, by micah bazant. detail.

detail

watercolor on paper, by micah bazant. detail.

detail

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bread and baking part 4: on the road to gluten-free

February 26, 2012

Part 4 in a series on bread and baking.

I’m going to say something fairly obvious about gluten-free bread. It has no gluten in it.

No I know. Duh. But really.

Those who have dabbled in gluten-free sweets or even baked from a gluten-free mix (even Betty Crocker makes GF mixes now) know that while it’s not completely the same, it’s pretty damn good. And every gluten eater can enjoy a slice of flourless chocolate cake, a good bowl of pudding, a meringue, or a French macaron. These are all gluten-free, by the way. That’s because sweets don’t depend on the actual gluten in the flour – in fact, the best glutinous sweet treats are made with pastry flour, which is low gluten. Bread flour? High gluten.

That’s because the defining qualities of good bread – a good crumb (that network of starch and protein filled with air pockets) and a nice crust – are directly caused by the interaction of the proteins in the gluten with yeast and water. By the way, I’m loosely paraphrasing from a lengthy chapter in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. All this is to say that good gluten-free bread is a great deal harder than its sweet counterparts. And by the way, I lack a science minded brain so if you are some sort of chemist and the way I’m talking about this is making your brain hurt, just move on.

So when I first went gluten-free in the fall of 2008, I felt pretty hopeless. And angry at the world. But I’ll spare you the details. I stopped whining and got over myself and started experimenting. And at some point I realized that things like this were possible:

gluten free bruschetta with local tomatoes, summer 2009

But now that I bake gluten-free bread with some degree of regularity, I would say that my reasoning for continuing to love bread baking, and the ways that it is a spiritual practice, remain the same. I love to focus on my baking, though a lot of the focus here is on weighing different flours. I love to plan. And I really love feeding my friends, especially since I can now feed my gluten-free friends fresh bread. If you have been eating store-bought GF bread for awhile and you have a slice of the bread below, warm, slathered in butter! What a treat.

And the true magic I see in GF bread?

Farmers work in partnership with God to give us so, so many types of grains, nuts, and fruits to grind into flavorful flours. It took going gluten-free for me to recognize and appreciate them all.

When given new eating restrictions, many people, especially those who love to cook, find that they are forced to become more creative. I found this to be true with baking GF bread. The flours! Here’s a few of my favorites: buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, oat, millet, almond, coconut, corn, brown rice, tapioca…

I’m proud that my spiritual practice of baking bread continues on and that, like all spiritual practices, it ebbs and flows and adapts to what’s happening in my life, health, and heart.

With that, I give you a recipe! I love this recipe because if you have a few key ingredients in your pantry – tapioca flour and xantham gum* – and some of your favorite GF flours, you can make delicious bread anytime.

gluten-free bread macro image

gluten-free bread: check out those air pockets!

Gluten-Free Bread

(Heavily adapted from Moosewood Daily Specials)

15 minutes active prep, up to 2 hours for rising, 40 minutes for baking
This is more of a formula than a recipe – which is to say, it is very adaptable to whatever GF flours you happen to have in your pantry. The only one you need for this is tapioca.

I highly recommend owning a kitchen scale. This recipe works better with ingredients measured by weight rather than volume, but you can make it work without.

1 package dry yeast (about 1 tbsp)
1 1/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp sugar or 2 tsp agave, honey, or maple syrup (can be omitted)

2 eggs (eggless version – 2 tbsp flax seeds blended with 6 tbsp warm water until frothy)

1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tsp cider vinegar

2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp xantham gum
1 cup (or 140 grams, if you have a kitchen scale) tapioca flour/starch
2 cups (or 240 grams) mixture of brown rice, corn, quinoa, millet, amaranth, oat, coconut, almond, teff, and/or buckwheat flours. I usually choose three.

Any additional yummies – mixed herbs, or cinnamon and a handful of raisins, or a handful each of olives and walnuts, you get the idea.

Using an electric mixer (works best), place the yeast and sugar or agave in the bottom of the bowl. Cover with the warm water and mix for 10-20 seconds or so. Let the yeast foam and bubble for a minute. Mix in wet ingredients first (eggs, oil, vinegar) and then add the dry and any mix-ins. Mix well. It will be the texture of cake batter rather than bread dough – worry not! Pour into a lightly oiled 9×5 loaf pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle with sesame, poppy, or nigella seeds if you like. Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

15 minutes before it’s finished rising, preheat the oven to 375. Remove the dishtowel and bake until golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. Let it cool for a few minutes out of the oven in the pan before removing. Remove to a cooling rack and let cool 30 minutes before slicing. If you are slicing to toast, I recommend slicing thin. If you have a good knife, this bread should slice easily. You can also made adorable rolls by baking in a muffin tin. If you do so, bake for only 25 minutes. Perfect for lunches alongside a bowl of soup or with a few slices of good cheese.

gluten-free rolls

gluten-free rolls!

*A word about xantham gum. A lot of people are afraid of this product. It is some sort of weird thing made in a lab yada yada, I think it’s a byproduct of corn, you can do your research if you like. It’s used as a stabilizer in a lot of processed foods like creamy salad dressing and ice cream. If you don’t use it, the recipe ingredients need to be much more exact than they are here. The beauty of this particular recipe is that it tastes a little different every time, which I kind of love. You can keep track of your favorite combinations of flours but as long as the measurements are right, the texture should be great. But if you want to try recipes without xantham gum, check out Gluten-Free Girl’s bread recipe.

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bread and baking part 3: no flour, no torah

February 24, 2012

Part 3 in a series on bread and baking.

no flour, no torah. no torah, no flour.

no flour, no torah. no torah, no flour. (pirkei avot 3:21)


calligraphy by rabbi sandi intraub. ink on paper + streamzoo filter.

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bread and baking part 2: baking as a spiritual practice

February 22, 2012

Part 2 in a series on bread and baking.

“One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” -Martin Buber

Like many people who grow up in the Conservative movement, I did not have a natural sense of spirituality associated with Jewish ritual, prayer, or liturgy. I am not sure this is Conservative Judaism’s strong suit. I struggled with what role God does or should play in my life, what the purpose of praying is, how to find meaning in the canon of Jewish liturgy.

Spirituality, what does that even mean? Right now it means a sense of a power larger than me, who partners with me in creating my life. I have a sense of feeling part of something else, something beyond my own decisions and actions. It also connects me with my history, both personally and communally. And it gives me the ability to look at everyday actions, beauty, friends, solitude, music – with a sense of awe, though I sometimes think of myself as a cynic.

I picked up baking. Bread, specifically. And the start of bread baking for me was also the beginning of a new chapter of spiritual practice. I could say that I baked bread for the purpose of having bread to eat – that would be simple enough. But I was living alone at the time. And as my “hobby” picked up, I started to have more bread than I could eat, so I would share it with co-workers and friends, which gave me a second layer of satisfaction beyond baking it and eating it in my own kitchen.

round challah rising

learning to slow down: a rosh hashanah challah is carefully braided and then rises again before being baked

Coming into this spiritual practice also required leaving New York. I needed to feel more connected to my body, my food, community – and I needed to slow down in order to do that. In Boston I had a more flexible schedule, more time to cook and bake. And at the same time, I was coming to the realization that I had a gluten intolerance. My body could no longer digest the magical bread I had started baking only a year earlier. I was devastated.

So here was the moment. What did I love about baking bread?
-Slowing down. The slower the better. Mark Bittman’s No Knead bread was a revelation to me. All this bread needed was yeast, salt, flour, and water. And time.

no-knead bread

no-knead bread rising in a floured towel

-Planning ahead. I have always been a planner. Baking bread really took full advantage of this skill. There’s something that I actually love about how you can’t eat bread 5 minutes after you thought to make it. The best bread takes thoughtful planning, no shortcuts or tips or “30 minute meals” here.

-Presence. Bread does not bake itself. Whether it’s bread that requires kneading or overnight time or, in the case of gluten-free bread, careful measuring and balancing of flours, you need to be present. This might be the crux for me: much like meditation, bread baking requires mindfulness and focus. Just because you know the recipe by heart does not mean you can check out and think about something else. You might forget the salt, or overknead, or not leave yourself enough time for your bread to rise.

-Magic. Here is where Shechina/God comes in. Bread is a partnership between humans and divinity. The fact that you can take a grass (I’m talking gluten here), grind it up into tiny disparate parts, mix it with water and live cultures and turn it into bread? There’s something magical happening there. I believe that even those chemical reactions are God.

-Connection. Nourishing other people with your hard work – do I even need to get into this? What a blessing for everyone involved. We nourish ourselves by nourishing others.

With all of this in mind, I began a Community Supported Breadery (CSB) in my new community in Boston, and became known in some circles as “the bread person.” This was at the same time I stopped eating gluten. A lot of people were confused by this, but it made perfect sense to me: bread baking brought me so much spiritual and emotional nourishment and I could no longer eat it – so I needed an outlet for it. This was it. And it was wonderful. I was fully present, immersed in flour and yeast and caraway seeds and raisins two days per week, and was visited by new friends and community members, excitedly picking up warm loaves of bread from my home.

The CSB proved to be a perfect bridge between my short-lived bread baking and eating days and my gluten free days. It allowed me to continue the spiritual practice, to cultivate it multiple times a week, without having to eat all that bread.

pile of fresh bread

community supported breadery (CSB) breads awaiting pickup

I believe that each of these parts of bread baking are spiritual practices to cultivate on their own. And each time we practice one of them in our kitchens we work towards turning our kitchen tables into altars.

Upcoming installments: feminism and connections to the past; crossing over to the gluten free side of baking, and more.

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bread and baking part 1: introduction, challah

February 22, 2012

Part 1 in a series on bread and baking.

Challah is catching on. I love this.

whole wheat challah

whole wheat challah, six stranded braids

In the fall of 2007, I visited my aunt and uncle in Boston – I was living in Brooklyn at the time. I was determined to learn to bake challah from my uncle, who had been doing so for years. I had never baked bread before. So intimidating and daunting!

Not so. Yeast and honey. Hot water. Eggs, oil, and salt. Flour. Knead until elastic. I had the hang of it! The beauty is in the braiding, I think.

That started me on baking all kinds of other breads and I became a sort of bread evangelist. I simply could not believe that this thing that was actually so easy to make had become a sort of holy grail of homemade goods – that food culture in the US has forced us to be so reliant on corporations that we’ve lost touch with something so basic. And in recent months I’ve seen an explosion of challah bakers among my friends. I love that the homemade food movement has reached challah at impressive levels. Because the secret is out: homemade challah is better than ANY bakery’s.

Some people guard their recipes closely, especially if it’s a passed-down recipe from a relative, like a family heirloom. I never understood this. If a recipe works, everyone should make it! It should be distributed with pride. Shouted from the rooftops. And I happen to think that this is the absolute perfect challah recipe – more bread-y than cake-y, more savory than sweet. Can be sweetened with raisins, currants, or chocolate chips, or filled with apples. Is perfectly delicious all by itself. Thank you to uncle David, for the recipe, inspiration, and the lesson!

Never made challah before? Try it. Just once. Maybe one of the most gratifying moments of your week: the challah cover lifting, and dinner guests kvelling at the beauty of the loaves you created.

Whole Wheat Challah (adapted)

2 envelopes (2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
½ cup honey
1 ¾ cup hot tap water
¾ cup grapeseed oil
3 eggs
4 tsp. sea salt
2 cups whole wheat flour
5-6 cups white flour (bread flour if you have it)
1 egg for basting

In a large mixing bowl or electric mixer, combine yeast and honey. Mix in the hot water and stir with a wire whisk. It should form bubbles. Let stand for a few minutes, then add the oil, eggs, and salt, and whisk together. Add flour 1 cup at a time, switching from the whisk to a wooden utensil when the dough gets thicker (or switching from whisk to paddle if you’re using an electric mixer). Turn the dough out on a flat surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding more flour if the dough is very sticky. When you’re finished kneading, the dough should be smooth and elastic and should bounce back when poked.

Oil a new (or cleaned) bowl, put the dough in, and flip it over once to coat it with oil so it can rise easily. Cover with a cotton towel and let rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours. Braid the dough, put it on your baking sheet, then let rise again for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350. Baste well with egg (use just the yolk if you want the challah extra shiny and golden), cover with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes (time depends on your oven and on the size of your challot). Yields three small or two large challot.

Some other helpful resources:
-Maggi Glezer’s book A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World is a fantastic resource, full of recipes, techniques, and beautiful stories.
-If you can’t get a hold of the book, check out Maggi’s instructional video on braiding a six-stranded braid. It’s not as complex as the video makes it out to be, she is just extra thorough.
-To stuff challah with apples, follow a similar technique to the one used here. Use the same challah recipe but after the first rise, roll out your dough into a rectangle, fill down the center with peeled and chopped apples tossed with cinnamon, cut the sides and fold over, forming a braid.

Coming up in future installments: bread baking as a spiritual practice, weaning off gluten but staying a passionate baker, other bread recipes. And more!

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