Bread isn’t just Oprah’s favorite food. To food scientist Nathan Myhrvold, it’s art. The intersection of art and food is the topic at the center of Myhrvold’s new five-volume collection, Modernist Bread. After flipping through the 2,642 pages of his latest opus, readers might start seeing the little holes throughout their loaves as steam tunnels, perhaps breaking out the bicycle pump to fluff up their dough. Hey, why not?
When it came to shooting the different types of bread, Myhrvold said they needed to get creative. “Bread starts as brown, and only gets browner,” he notes. Nevertheless, the photography in the collection is stunning and allows readers to look at the popular food through an extreme microscope.
Here is a recipe suitable for beginning bakers. Myhrvold’s challah bread involves patience, glyph systems, and some braiding practice.
A bread that has great meaning and ritualistic value in the Jewish faith, challah is a staple at holiday and Shabbat meals. On the eve of Shabbat, loaves are placed on the table to reference the Jewish teaching that a double portion of manna fell from heaven on Friday to last through the Saturday Shabbat. In the most common shape of challah, the braided strands form 12 “humps,” which are said to represent the 12 ceremonial loaves (shewbread) kept in the Temple in Jerusalem for the 12 tribes of Israel. While the bread has a distinctive richness that’s reminiscent of brioche, it is traditionally pareve (it contains no meat or dairy), so it is made with oil rather than butter. The whole eggs and egg yolks give the bread its lush flavor and golden color.
Yield/Shapes: 2 braided loaves
Time estimate: Active 26 min/Inactive 5 h 55 min
Difficulty: easy: mixing
Storage notes: keeps for 1 d at room temperature or up to 2 mo in the freezer
185 g water (¾ cup, 32.17% baker’s glyph)
6 g instant dry yeast (2 tsp, 1% baker’s glyph)
575 g flour (4 cups, 100% baker’s glyph)
80 g whole eggs, cold (2 ea., 13.91% baker’s glyph)
40 g egg yolks, cold (2 ea., 6.96% baker’s glyph)
45 g sugar (¼ cup. 7.83% baker’s glyph)
43 g vegetable oil (¼ cup, 7.39% baker’s glyph)
11 g fine salt (2 tsp, 1.91% baker’s glyph)
Vegetable oil, as needed
50 g whole egg
20 g egg yolk (1 ea.)
Nigella seeds, optional
Prepare the dough: Combine the water and yeast in the mixer’s bowl and stir to dissolve. Add the flour, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, oil, and salt. Mix on low speed until you obtain a homogenous mass, 1–2 min. Mix on medium speed to full gluten development, 5–7 min.
Prepare to ferment: Transfer the dough to a sheet pan lined with a lightly oiled nonstick silicone mat. Flatten the dough, and form it into a rectangle with even thickness. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap.
Ferment: Bulk ferment for 1 h. Refrigerate the dough, covered, until it is firm and chilled, 1–2 hours. Divide the dough into 165 g pieces (6 total). Preshape as a simple bâtard with tapered ends. Rest the dough in the refrigerator, well covered, for 20 min.
Braid the dough: Roll the dough out to 45 cm / 18 in long strands. Cover the strands immediately after rolling to keep the surface from drying out. Place three dough strands side by side, leaving about 2.5 cm / 1 in between the pieces. Pinch the three pieces together at the top so that they stick to one another. Move the right strand over the middle strand. Place the left strand over the middle strand (that was previously the right strand). Repeat steps 14 and 15 until the braid is finished. You are essentially just moving the outside strands to the middle in an alternating pattern, but using two hands helps pull the braid together. Pinch the three ends of the dough together, and gently roll them so that they taper into a pointed tip. Tuck the tip under the braid.
Prepare to bake: Line a sheet pan with a nonstick silicone mat or parchment paper. Place the loaves in the prepared pan. Brush each loaf with a thin coat of vegetable oil. To prevent the crust from ripping, brush the surface with oil 2–3 times during proofing. Proof the dough for 1–2 h at 21˚C / 70˚F. Test for proof using the fingertip test. (Gently press the exposed surface of the dough for 2 s; the pressure should leave a small dent in the dough; it will slowly spring back, but the indentation should remain clearly visible after 1–2 s.)
Create an egg wash: While the dough is proofing, whisk together the egg and egg yolk to make an egg wash. Brush egg wash on the loaves just before baking. Coat in seeds or other toppings, if desired.
Bake: Bake the dough for 15 min at 190˚C / 375˚F. Once the crust has an amber-brown color, take the loaf out of the oven and apply a second coat of egg wash, if not garnished with seeds. Return the loaf to the oven, open the vent, and bake for 10 more min.
Rest the bread: Remove the bread from the oven. Cool the bread by placing the sheet pan over a cooling rack so air circulates below the pan. Consume within 1 day or freeze for up to 2 mo.