There are these little red shoes. They used to belong to Jacob, and before that they belonged to my sweet friend Rebecca’s little boy, and before that, her little girl.
Yesterday I found that overnight, Lucas’s blue sneakers were too small. So I went to the closet and there they were – those little red shoes. And I thought, this will do. These shoes stomped through crunchy drifts of fall leaves, searched for turtles along the tow path, clambered onto the backs of beloved bronze tigers. Jacob wore these shoes when he was just getting big enough to run on his own two feet.
Sometimes I miss that place so much.
When we lived in Princeton, there was a little non-descript loaf called “sweet-potato bread” that used to appear at the grocery store around this time each year. It ran along the lines of a traditional potato bread, with a soft crumb and the barest sweetness. It had a sturdy enough crust, with a little crackle of sugar on top, but nothing you’d call crunchy, nothing shatter-y.
I loved this bread. Let me repeat, because it bears repeating: I loved this bread. Its ghost has been haunting me lately – there was that heart-achingly full harvest moon, and then the hay bales and the pumpkins started appearing all around town, and once that awful heat went away I developed what my husband calls a hankering. Fall colors showed up even in our play dough.
And then there were the shoes.
I couldn’t find any “sweet-potato bread” recipes anywhere that seemed like they might get the job done. (Any suggestions out there?)
There were however many, many recipes for pumpkin bread. It seemed seasonal and right, and like it might ease my longing. But I wasn’t looking for something sweet, or cakey, or cinnamon-ladden. This was not the time for a spiced-pound-cake-calling-itself-bread sort of thing (though I don’t deny that there is a time for precisely that sort of thing). In my mind, pumpkin was more the backstory, really – there to give some depth, or character. But it was that particular, longed-for type of breadiness that I was really seeking.
Do you guys remember when we made The Fluffness? The original recipe hailed from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, and we were introduced to it by Emmy at emmycooks.com. If I have a seasonal yearning for sweet-potato bread, Jacob and Lucas have a non-stop longing for those fluffy-hearted, golden-crusted loaves.
You may recall that we sent one of the four – four! – Fluffness loaves home, pre-bake, with our friends Brian and Miles. Well, our wee friend Miles is now a whopping one year old! And his everyday kicks are sneakers that used to belong to my boys. We were gearing up to celebrate with his family and friends this weekend, and I flashed on that bread recipe. There was a particular way that the dough, enriched with egg and unabashedly buoyant with white flour, was reminiscent of the bread I was missing.
So what would happen, if we added pumpkin to the original? Hm.
I should put a note here to say, I have absolutely no authority whatsoever on determining what makes a challah officially a challah. I suspect that I have gone way out of bounds with this one. Calling this bread a Pumpkin Challah might offend people who actually know what the guidelines are, and I’m sorry. It’s just that, calling it Pumpkin Bread really gives one the wrong idea (see above re: rich, cakey, etc).
This bread is not really looking to be served with tea, or coffee, or as a dessert. It has appeared alongside lemony-garlicky wilted greens, and it did well there. Today it will accompany a rich stewy crock-pot concoction, and if I get a moment to myself tonight I might take that last heel and put a nice smear of spicy plum chutney over top (sort of like we did with those empanadas).
In other words, it’s bread. Not cake. So treat it accordingly. While I don’t doubt that this bread could stand up to French toasting, and I know for certain that it makes a fine snack ripped off in hunks for pre-schoolers, its highest calling is surely getting toasted, in thick slices, and then spread with sweet butter.
(Lucas, in his new red shoes, would like me to add that toast made from the currant-laced version makes a very fine breakfast, lunch and dinner. But he’s still not sold on the plain loaves.)
And if, while you chew your toast, your mind wanders … if you can perfectly picture your almost-four year old when he was a toddling red-shoed initiate into the traditions of fall leaves … and if in your memories those leaves seem a little bit brighter, the air a little bit crisper … then you will know that, even if this is not just the bread you were dreaming of, it can call that bread to mind. It will do.
And that is a wonderful thing.
Off topic but worth mentioning: I’m sure many of you have seen it, but Michael Ruhlman’s thoughtful piece Is Food Writing Important is a good read – in case you need reminding that cooking, and eating, and storytelling, are vital to being human.
This bread is inspired by the challah recipe from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which I found via Emmy at emmycooks.com. Like the original recipe, it makes four (count ’em, four!) loaves of bread. This makes it a perfect bread for sharing with neighbors, friends, or anyone you think might need a little pick me up. But I will totally understand if you decide you need to keep it all to yourself. Like good memories, some things are precious ;)
2 tablespoons dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (body temperature)
1 15 oz can pumpkin puree
1/4 – 1/2 cup additional warm water (depending on relative moisture of dough; see below)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
8-10 cups flour (I used King Arthur Organic Bread Flour)
1 beaten egg mixed with a teaspoon water, for egg wash
1 tablespoon Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling over the egg wash
Optional: we kneaded a couple handfuls of currants into one loaf. Lucas found this to be the far superior loaf in every way; no one else was swayed one way or the other.
Dissolve the yeast in the water with the first teaspoon of sugar. You will probably need to stir it a little with a fork.
In your biggest bowl, beat the eggs. Add pumpkin and mix well. Add the salt, sugars, and melted butter, and beat again. Then add the yeast mixture and beat one more time. Gradually add flour, a cup at a time, and let the dough come together. You will need 8-10 cups total; start with the smaller amount and see how it works up. I measured this into a separate bowl, then let J slowly add it while I kept mixing and then kneading in the bowl. Once it was workable dough, I put it on the counter and kept kneading, with J sprinkling more flour as needed to keep from sticking (I wanted it moist, but not sticky). Knead for about 15 minutes or until it is smooth and elastic.
UPDATE: several readers have commented or emailed regarding the stiffness of their dough. It seems that when using canned pumpkin, you may need additional water: I have amended the recipe so that it begins with 1/4 cup of water, with the option of adding as much as an additional 1/2 cup. The main thing is that your dough should be smooth and pleasant to work with. The feeling should be moist without being sticky. Special thanks to Sarah, Tara, Jenn, Emily and Nicole for their thoughtful and thorough feedback, and their impromptu recipe testing – we’ve got some great readers and dedicated bread makers around here! xo
Flour your counter, and lightly flour the dough ball. Cover it with a clean dish towel and leave it to rise; it took my dough not quite two hours to more than double. Punch down and knead again. Divide into four equal-sized balls of dough (each ball will become a loaf). If you’d like to add currants to a loaf, knead them in now (two good-sized handfuls worked well for us).
To shape the loaves: divide each ball into three smaller balls, and roll them into snakes. Pinch the three snakes together at one end, then braid together, just like braiding hair. Tuck the ends under. Move the shaped loaves to parchment-lined baking sheets. Let them rise for 1 more hour, until they have doubled again. Heat your oven to 350 while they rise.
Once they have completed rising, brush loaves with egg wash and sprinkle lightly with Turbinado sugar. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes until well-browned and hollow-sounding when you tap the bottoms of the loaves.