Before anything else, I am a baker. I always have been from as early as I can remember. Baking is a task that I am completely in awe of. The transformation of a few simple particles into a completely whole and beautiful loaf makes me feel, well frankly, it makes me feel a little like god. Everything I ever needed to know in life I learned from baking: patience, perseverance, and pleasure.
In my 20’s I moved from New York to Los Angeles to do what bazillions of cute girls in their 20’s do.
And Los Angeles is fine. I think there are many people for whom Los Angeles is mecca. It’s loaded with sun and excess and ease. But for a pale, introverted shut-in like me, Los Angeles was always a challenge. Pretending I was comfortable in LA was my first acting job – and one I performed pretty successfully the entire 16 years I wound up staying.
But acting is nothing like baking- a pretty obvious statement, I know. The control my life lacked as an actress was settled by frequent baking days. It’s nice to produce something that is both undeniable and non-negotiable when you live in LA.
Now, Shannon, one of my best friends from college followed me out to LA about a year after I got settled. She was very encouraging about my baking habit (she was no fool), and we began a monthly ritual wherein we would combine incredible cheeses with freshly baked bread. A lot of wine always helped too. We called ourselves “The Big Fat Cheese Ladies of Laurel Canyon”, and I relished the long nights where we ate and drank ourselves silly whilst planning our attack on the world.
The Big Fat Cheese Ladies of Laurel Canyon lasted the entire 16 years I was in Los Angeles and got me through some of the toughest moments in my life. That is, except for the moment when I learned that my dear friend Shannon had passed away.
It is now three years since her death. My life is as different as it could be from those days. I’m back in New York, a successful private chef- getting paid to bake- and living with the man of my dreams (coincidentally also named Shannon- I know, I know).
But I thought recently, not everything needs to be different…
We invited a small group of friends, both old and new. I baked two of my favorite loaves, a Shallot-Poppy Seed Challah that is both beautiful and delicious, and a Pagnotta- a classic Italian Round. We asked our friends to contribute to the cheese pool (we had acquired Shropshire Blue, Shelburne Cheddar, Manchego , Brie de Meaux, and Humboldt Fog). About 10 more cheeses were added, including one ironic CAN of cheese- which we dutifully displayed on the table.
Shannon prepared some mussels in a garlic wine sauce that were incredible and of course we had a salad (because, as I’m sure you know, eating salad renders all the fat and calories null in void).
I got a little choked up somewhere in the night, because of how lucky I feel to have such incredible friends now AND then. I get by with a little help from my friends. I eat cheese with a little help from my friends.
Makes 2 medium Braids
- 1 tbs. active dry yeast
- 3 tbs. sugar
- 2 tsp. salt
- 4 to 4 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 cup hot milk
- ½ cup hot water
- 1 egg
- ½ cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Shallot Poppy Seed Filling:
- 4 tbs. unsalted butter
- 2 tbs. olive oil
- 2/3 cup (about 6 medium) shallots, chopped
- 3 tbs. Parmesan Cheese, grated
- 5 tbs. poppy seeds
- 1 egg white
- 1 tbs. water
- Pinch salt
- Pinch sugar
1. Prepare the dough: In a large bowl, using the paddle attachment, combine the yeast, sugar, salt and 1 ½ cups of the flour. Add the milk and water and beat for 1 minute, or until creamy. Add the egg and butter pieces with ½ cup more flour. Beat until the butter is incorporated. Add the remaining flour ½ cup at a time to form a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl.
2. Turn the flour onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently to form a soft, yet springy dough, adding flour 1 tbs at a time to prevent sticking. Place in a greased bowl, turn once to coat top, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a medium skillet or sauté pan, melt the butter and oil. Add the shallots. Sauté until just limp and translucent but not browned. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese and poppy seeds. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
4. Turn the dough out onto the work surface. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin to a 12 by 18 inch rectangle, moving the dough frequently to prevent sticking. Cut lengthwise into three 4 inch wide strips. Carefully spread the filling over the center of each strip, leaving a 1 inch margin of dough all the way around. Fold over the edges and pinch them together, encasing the filling.
5. Lift the ropes gently onto a greased or parchment lined baking sheet, placing them 1 inch apart. Beginning in the middle, braid each rope loosely to each end. Pinch the ends and tuck them under securely. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6. Gently brush the dough with the egg glaze and sprinkle lightly with poppy seeds. Bake in the center of the oven until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.