Why not try this: On Saturday, wake up a bit earlier than you normally would. Slip out of bed quietly and get yourself ready. If you need coffee or tea, make it. If you need a shower, take it. Enjoy the silence of the morning and as soon as you feel like you can face it, shut the door behind you and head out to the store (but don’t forget to leave a note for your sleeping family, OK?).
If you’re in a city, maybe the store is just the bodega on the corner. In the suburbs you might have to get in the car and go a bit farther. Wherever you need to go, go. And when you get there, buy some eggs, a can or two of pumpkin, some bread flour, yeast, and butter. Pick up a magazine if you’d like, or maybe even a candy bar. Treat yourself. This is all about treats.
If you do this (plus what I tell you next), you’ll be eating warm pumpkin challah bread by early afternoon. Then, later, you’ll have slices of it spread thick with creamy unsalted butter at dinner. And Sunday? Oh Sunday is the best, because that’s when you’ll take what’s left of the bread and soak it in a batter of eggs and milk and vanilla, and fry in a skillet bathed in now-melted pats of butter. Serve it with this bacon. And then at night, when that bit of “oh tomorrow is Monday” sadness starts to creep in partway through your Sunday night shows, you can quickly bat it away by using all the crumbs and corners and maybe those tough last bits in the bottom of the bag to make a lovely pumpkin bread pudding.
But, before all this, you’ll first need to make the bread.
I’ve said before that I’m not good at simple recipes. I can’t really stick to the letter of anything. When I was in college I took a creative writing course taught by a bald man named Bernie who looked more like a trucker than a poet. He doled out assignments meant to instruct us on the basics, but I somehow always found a way to suit them to my liking. One afternoon he called me into his office hours and held a paper up to my face. “What is this?” he asked. I glanced at it and said it was, obviously, my poem. The assignment was to write a Shakesperean sonnet with 10 14-syllable lines in iambic pentameter.
“This,” he said, snapping the paper in front of my face, “is *not* a Shakesperean sonnet.”
“I know,” I replied. “It’s a sonnet sort of. I wrote it right there in the title. See?” I pointed to the subtitle where I’d added the words: “A Sonnet. (Sort of)”
“This wasn’t what I asked for,” he repeated.
“I know, but isn’t it good?”
“But it wasn’t what I asked for…”
“I know,” I said again. “But it’s good.”
This, my friends, is what you should tell the friends and family members in your life who are horrified with the idea of gussying up the challah with spices and pumpkin puree. “It’s fine as is!” They might shout despite your protestations. (Like with bagels and pizza, those who love challah tend to be very passionate about it.) And you might be tempted to agree. Challah, after all, is probably one of the best breads ever invented. Probably. The “plain” version, light and golden-hued with the faintest hint of sweetness, is pretty damn good. But take that pretty damn good recipe and add a bit of pumpkin and cinnamon and a few other nice things and Oh. My. Gosh. It may not be what you (or they) are used to, but that won’t matter, because it is good.
So remember. This Saturday. Wake up early. Get the ingredients. Make this bread.
Your weekend will be lovely.
Oh and by the way, I ended up doing quite well in that class after all…
Pumpkin Spice Challah Bread
7g active dry yeast (1 envelope)
4-5 cups white bread flour
1/3 cup white granulated sugar (can be adjusted more or less based on your preference)
½ tsp ground cardamom
1.5 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2/3 cup warm water
1 tsp kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil + 1 tablespoon for egg wash
2 large eggs beaten + 1 egg yolk for egg wash
1 cup pumpkin puree
Combine the yeast with 2/3 cup of flour and the warm water. Whisk gently until well combined and leave in a warm (but not hot) spot to proof. In about 10-15 minutes, the mixture will look foamy and somewhat alive. This is a good thing.
Pour this into the bowl of your electric mixer with the dough hook in place. Add the sugar, salt, oil, and egg and beat until well incorporated (about 1 minute). Add the pumpkin and all the spices, and mix until combined. Add the remaining flour, 1 cup at a time until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Depending on a variety of factors, your dough might require a bit more flour than listed above. Add this ¼ cup at a time until the dough is springy, but not sticky. Knead with the hook (or remove to a floured surface and knead by hand) for about 5-10 minutes.
Roll the flour into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Turn the dough once to grease the top then cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel and leave in a warm spot to rise. I like to place it inside my (turned off) oven. The heat from the pilot is just perfect to keep it going—particularly on a drafty autumn morning. Let rise until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour to 1 hour and a half).
Poke the dough down (no need to actually “punch” it) and reshaped into a ball. Grease the bowl once again, turn, cover and repeat the rising process for about another hour.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough in half. This will make two nicely sized loaves. Set one half aside and place the other half in front of you. Use a pastry cutter to split into six evenly sized pieces. Roll each of these pieces into a rope-like shape, making sure to taper the ends. Should be about 8 inches long.
Line the six ropes vertically in front of you and pinch all the ends together so you have what looks like a sea creature with six tentacles. Starting with the piece all the way to the right, pull it over the next two pieces, then under the third, and over the last two. Repeat this with each piece at the right until you can no longer continue braiding. It helps to chant to yourself “Over two, under one , over two.”
Pinch the ends and tuck under. Repeat with the second half of dough.
Sprinkle some cornmeal over a large parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the two loaves on the sheet allowing enough room on each side for them to rise. If necessary, use two baking sheets.
Beat one egg yolk with a tablespoon of olive oil and use a pastry brush to gently (gently!) brush over the braid. This will give it that lovely shine once baked. Top loosely with oiled or sprayed plastic wrap and let proof (rise) again for about 40 minutes or until doubled. About half-way through this rise, you might want to start preheating your oven to 350 degrees (but be sure to remove the braids first if you’re letting them rise in there!!)
Once risen, brush with another coat of egg wash. (Be sure to be even more gentle now as the braids are very delicate right now.) Bake in the 350 degree oven for about 40-45 minutes.
Let cool on wire racks before serving.
Baking bread at home is much easier than some people think, but once you get the hang of it you might find that you’ve encountered the much more complicated task of storing the bread. Different people swear by different approaches, but I find that it is always best to leave the bread out of the refrigerator. That simply will dry it out and you’ll find yourself with two rapidly-stale loaves smelling slightly of eau de fridge.
If you don’t think you will be able to consume all the bread within 2-3 days (not that you should be ashamed if you do manage it...), you should slice it and wrap well in plastic and foil, then freeze. For immediate eating, wrap either in plastic wrap or place in a brown paper bag and store in a cool dry place on your counter top. (I have a friend who recommends storing crusty breads in a pillowcase, but I’ve yet to try this approach.) Home baked bread can be quickly “refreshed” by popping into a 350 degree oven for a 1 or 2 minutes before serving. And of course, once the bread does go stale, it’s time for French toast and bread pudding—would that we all could meet such a lovely, lovely fate.