“Did you know there was a challah competition at the State Fair?”
My boss told me that a few weeks ago, and my response was something like when you tell your kids or your dog to do something, and they kind of tilt their head and look at you like you’re speaking another language.
My next response was, to quote Barney Stinson, Neil Patrick Harris’s character in How I Met Your Mother:
I have a really high opinion of my challah. And it’s good. Like, I don’t miss It Takes The Cake good. Possibly an irrationally high opinion of my challah, but I stand by it. I have a recipe that has been working for a long time, and I’d put it up against anyone in the state.
But there’s a wrinkle: The challah competition at the Minnesota State Fair is under the auspices of the Agriculture-Horticulture-Bee competition. That means, the only sweetener in the challah is honey; no sugar. So I started researching how to get this done.
Conventional (internet) wisdom says that per one cup of sugar, you can use ½ to 2/3 cup of honey. That’s not an insignificant range to be dealing with. Also, it suggested reducing other liquids in the recipe, so it required testing. Several challot were made and tested. After all, it was done in the name of science. We were willing to sacrifice.
We reduced the oil from ½ to ¼ cup, and swapped the ½ cup of sugar to ¼ cup of honey (as I’ve written in the past, we use the cheap stuff; good, raw, organic honey hasn’t worked for us in this recipe). I also reduced the roughly 5 tablespoons of honey added after the sugar to 4 tablespoons – another ¼ cup. The result was excellent; good texture and sweetness. But there was one not-so-minor problem: I added a pinch of sugar in with the yeast and warm water to proof the yeast. It was a mistake I realized immediately after adding it to the rest of the ingredients.
We went with the same reduced amount of oil but went with 1/3 cup of honey – plus the ¼ at the end. The result was arguably the better tasting challah, but one that was far more difficult to work with. The dough in the bread machine didn’t rise as much, so I decided to proof it in a 100-degree oven for much longer than the 30-60 minutes called for. The resulting was over-inflated challah that was hard to brush with the egg wash and became misshapen when I tried to move it to a second baking sheet – that’s how large they got.
We ended up submitting the recipe from Test 1, minus the sugar in the in yeast/water mix. Also, due to timing of starting the dough and eating dinner, the dough got about another hour in the warm bread machine to rise – there was much more volume than when the 90 minutes were up in the machine. All three attempts baked at a lower temperature than the suggested 350 degrees; honey can carmelize and burn, so it had to cook longer than we had anticipated. But the end result smelled really good.
Delivery, Tuesday, Aug. 22
The State Fairgrounds, without hundreds of thousands of fairgoers, is a really strange place. It’s far from empty; hundreds of box trucks, pickups, moving vans, etc., are buzzing around the grounds to get the booths set up. It’s also the day that, by noon, all the food to be judged for the Ag-Hort-Bee category has to be delivered by.
The nice woman who greeted me at the check-in table quickly figured me for a rookie. Maybe it was the last minute picture I had to take of the challah. Maybe it was my wondering what I was supposed to do with the tag I got in the mail with my name on it, even though your name isn’t supposed to be on the entry.
Do I stand a chance? Sure – there are only 19 number of entries in this particular category, so statistically, I’ve got a better than 5 percent
chance if everyone enters. And there are dozens of food categories in which to compete. But it’s more than a little daunting to see Marjorie Johnson as one of the competitors. I have no idea if she’s won this event in the past, but the woman is a legend.
So as I crossed Underwood Street to the Agriculture Horticulture Building and delivered my challah to a group of strangers to judge, I’ll admit the legs were a little shaky. It’s certainly not over the $15 prize for first place (although the blue ribbon that goes with it is enticing). But, being able to call me Minnesota’s Best Challah Baker in 2017? That’s going on the resume.
It may not be my last State Fair entry, but you never forget your first time.
(Editor’s note: By the time you read this, the State Fair will be open and you’ll be able to see who won. Someone post to our Facebook page and let us know. Thanks!)