Sometimes, you come across a recipe that is so delicious, you have to just stop everything. This is one of those recipes.
I took out the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman, from my library and I have to say…I firmly believe everyone needs this book. It is awesome. Every recipe that I’ve made has been beyond wonderful. They are easy; they are tasty; they make the cook look amazing.
This bread is no exception.
Look at it! It’s beautiful! All golden and pretty. So professional. It’s almost like I’ve been doing this for years…as opposed to days.
I have always been fascinated by bread making. There is something so comforting and soothing about biting into a soft, light roll; crunching through the crust of a good French bread; sopping up pasta sauce with thick-cut Italian bread; sinking your teeth into a hearty french toast.
Since I don’t have a dough hook any more, and I don’t always like using the bread machine, I have been making this bread by hand. I knead it, and knead it, and knead it. It’s a great stress reliever and really connects me with the whole process. It almost feels primal. Well, at least olde worlde, if not primal. And it’s a good arm workout. And when you make this bread…you are going to want to eat all of it. In one sitting. Therefore, you best believe you need that arm workout. (If, like me, you measure your nomming tendencies with amount of physical activity required.)
The deliciousness factor of this bread is amplified by the fact that you can put almost anything in it. The first time I made it was the traditional recipe, with figs. Ridiculously delicious. The next time? A paste of cinnamon sugar, pecans, and raisins.
Today’s mouth-watering filling? Whiskey-soaked dates.
As you might have guessed by the title of this little blog, I love whiskey. I also love dates–In this case I mean the fruit, rather than the activity. The whiskey-date filling is sweet, smoky, oaky, and complex. It’s surrounded by the soft, slightly sweet and light bread. Mmmmm.
Whiskey-soaked Date Challah bread
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon honey
2/3 cup warm water (110 to 116 degrees F)
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for the bowl
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, or 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup seeded and roughly chopped dates
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest, or more as desired
1-1 1/2 cup(s) whiskey
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg
Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling (You could also use large crystal sugar for a more dessert like finish)
- To make the dough by hand: Whisk the yeast and 1 teaspoon honey into warm water, and let it stand for a few minutes, until foamy.
- Mix the wet ingredients with a whisk, then add the salt and flour. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. It will look shaggy, and a bit like it won’t ever be cohesive. Don’t worry.
- Turn the mixture out onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed.
- Transfer the dough to an olive-oil coated bowl (or rest the dough briefly on the counter and oil your mixer bowl to use for rising, so that you’ll use fewer dishes), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.
- Meanwhile, make fig paste: In a small saucepan, combine the dates, zest, whiskey, juice, salt, and a few grinds of black peper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the dates are soft and tender, about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Process the whiskey-date mixture in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Set aside to cool.
- Insert Whiskey-Date Paste: After your dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured counter and divide it into quarters.
- Roll the first quarter of the dough into a wide and totally imperfect rectangle (really, the shape doesn’t matter). Spread 1/4 the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge.
- Roll the dough into a long, tight log, trapping the filling within. Then gently stretch the log as wide as feels comfortable.
- Repeat with remaining dough and date filling.
- Weave your challah: Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. Continue weaving, over and under (left to right), until you run out of dough rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form something roundish.It is ok if it’s not perfect. It will still look impressive.
- Transfer the dough to a parchment-cover heavy baking sheet.
- Beat egg until smooth, and brush over challah.
- Let challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 375°F.
- Bake your loaf: Before baking, brush loaf one more time with egg wash and sprinkle with sea salt (or sugar.)
- Bake in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes. It should be beautifully bronzed; if yours starts getting too dark too quickly, cover it with foil for the remainder of the baking time. The very best way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer — the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees. (I highly recommend this trick!)
- Cool loaf on a rack before serving.