The importance of failure and challah

It was a humbling week in my kitchen.

The holiday week started out with great ambition and I was going to tackle it all. The docket included experimenting with gluten-free flour and a big tender spot of missing New York. In the end, I contemplated writing an entire post about a single loaf of challah (it is a bread that merits its own post, to be sure) because the docket was in tatters… but I couldn’t do it.

In the world of academia, and as a researcher, you become aware that no one wants to publish unfavorable results. The maxim ‘negative results are results’ sits engraved on a gilded plaque, out of sight. If you google “research negative results” you get a ton of articles published in reputable journals and research outlets proclaiming that negative results are important and that researchers should publish their findings, regardless of outcome. But does anyone really do that? No one wants to advertise failure.

So with that in mind, I will advertise my failures because failed bakes are still bakes.

Round 1: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies

These went very wrong and, with hindsight, so many missteps on my part. First mistake, I chose a recipe that I have only ever used once. Sure, that one time it worked out great but I am unfamiliar with its nuances. Don’t change up something as structurally important as the kind of flour you’re using when you’re not good friends with the recipe. Second, the recipe called for melted butter. I went on auto-pilot, and about half way through creaming the butter and sugar I realized my mistake but carried on anyway hoping I would get away with it. Butter makes a big difference. Melted/room-temp/overly-soft/overly-cold butter reacts in a recipe. It seems unimportant (I mean, it’s all going in the oven, right?) but no. It makes a difference.

Despite these two big missteps, I carried on. The resulting cookies were not inedible… but they also weren’t cookies. These were puddles of congealed sugar, gluing together the odd chocolate chip. I left them to cool, and they repaid me by sliding right off the butter oil-slick cookie sheet. Gross. But the worst part is that I don’t even know which element of the bake went wrong. Did they fail because of the butter? Because of the flour? Or is the recipe fiddly? Definitely not a well-written experiment.

There is no photo. Just trust me, they were bad.

Round 2: Chocolate Babka

I knew I wanted to make a babka loaf over the Easter holidays. The impending springtime weather has me feeling nostalgic for NYC. When I first moved to the U.K. I bought the book New York Cult Recipes by Marc Grossman to quell my homesickness. This is a recipe I’ve made before, I know it works. And that it’s delicious. Coming off of the chocolate chip cookie disaster, I needed a win. (I don’t take kitchen failure very well. Last time I failed this hard was my first attempt at meringues… 18 egg whites later and 0 meringues. I didn’t even consider making another meringue again for years.)

But I digress. This babka is something I know I can make. And every step of the way went beautifully. The streusel looked good, the dough rose beautifully and slowly, it rolled out nicely, it rose again in the tin and looked perfect. While preheating the oven I applied the cinnamon-chocolate-sugar streusel, thinking “this feels like a lot… but never too much sugar, amiright??” Still fine. It baked up like a champ and when the timer went off I opened the oven door and thought “I feel like this might not be done” but also thought it doesn’t seem under-baked. So I pulled it out and let it cool. Twenty minutes later I came back to a horrible mess. It most definitely was not done. It capsized in on itself and so yet another fail for Danielle.

Round 3: challah loaf

This bake came from the same place as the babka, a need for comforting New York foods. I set my heart on a French toast brunch and it’s a known fact that challah makes the best French toast. And considering I live in the middle of East Anglia, this means making it from scratch. I took my recipe from Grossman’s book, another one that I’ve made before and know it works (at the heart of it, bread is flour, water, and yeast… so it would be odd if it absolutely didn’t make a bread). This time, everything went well all the way through to the end, if I do say so myself.

And speaking of bread-basics, Michael Ruhlman’s explains that at its most basic, a loaf of bread is 5 parts flour to 3 parts water, plus a bit of yeast and salt. That simple. At the heart of it, this is true for the challah loaf with the addition of some sugar, a couple eggs, and a bit of olive oil to take it from basic bread to challah special. Leite’s Culinaria lays the recipe for challah out nicely.

This braided beauty saved my weekend, which I would have otherwise spent in a mountain of self-pity and general irritability. It made a lovely French toast, too. I even introduced Dan to the concept of cornflake-crusted French toast.

So, the moral of this weekend is a trusted recipe, made with the trusted ingredients, while trusting your intuition, probably makes for a more successful bake.

Today’s beginner philosophy lesson brought to you by: Skepticism

Rene Descartes is often thought of as the father of modern philosophy, active in the mid-1600s. During this time, the field of skepticism has begun to emerge and the Church’s iron-clad hold on society begins to loosen. Descartes, a man of the times, begins to reject any ‘truth’ that cannot be proven without the slightest doubt.

For example, if you smell chocolate chip cookies (the normal kind, not the failed gluten-free variety) you would likely assume that chocolate chip cookies were nearby. Descartes would smell the cookies but instead of coming to the conclusion that the nearby cookies were chocolate chip, he would taste them. Sensing that these cookies smelled, looked, and tasted like chocolate chip cookies he would not yet be convinced. He would want to know what ingredients made up the cookies, where the ingredients came from, how they came into existence, everything. And only at this point of knowledge might he accept that the scent he senses is, in fact, chocolate chip cookies.

This extreme form of doubt seems like outrageous overkill today (in fact, it is sometimes referred to as hyperbolic doubt) but it came after a long period in which society was told what was true by the Church – without any proof or reasoning behind these ‘truths’. In this way, skepticism is an intensely forward-thinking mind set. Descartes’ refusal to accept that which he is told to be true is the basis for the famous, albeit often misquoted, “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” (I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am).

3 thoughts on “The importance of failure and challah

  1. First I have one comment – what an awesome cutting board you have! I think with information being thrown at us from all directions we have become too overwhelmed and have begun to cease thinking for ourselves because it is to hard. This is getting dangerous in the world of “fake news”. Society needs to take more personal responsibility and stop following others blindly. That is just my 2 cents.

    The bread is gorgeous!

    Liked by 1 person

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