“Baking is chemistry” is the message I have been trying to convey to my three children for years. Whenever they would come home from school with an assignment for a science project, I would suggest that they try baking a cake with varying amounts of baking soda, baking powder, or some other ingredient, the theory being that they would see chemistry in action and I would get to eat cake. Not one ever took my idea seriously. Granted, they had excellent science projects, but I really wanted them to learn their way around a kitchen, especially since their father is hopeless in that part of the house. (Joel says that we split the kitchen duties 50/50 – I cook and he eats.)
Anyway, I have been baking challah every week since my marriage in 1977, in an attempt to duplicate the delicious loaves my own grandmother made during her lifetime. A few years ago, I decided to start doing the same in our cottage in the Berkshires. After all, I figured, why bring day-old or frozen bread with me when I could have freshly baked loaves, warm and fragrant right out of the oven?
Well, my challah came out weird. The dough was gooey and sticky, and full of odd-looking bubbles. The final baked product was flat and dense. Now, having been trained in research, I looked at my ingredients to make sure that each item was the same brand as the others. Where they were not, I purchased new – down to the brand of raisins. The challah still came out weird. So, next I looked at my measuring cups and spoons; even they were the same brand. Still weird – and ugly.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally connected the dots (okay, I admit it, I’m slow). My neighbor, Sheila, and I were discussing how bad our hair looks when we shampoo in the Berkshires. We attributed it to the greasy-feeling water that results from the water softeners we need to counteract the hard town water. And, what are water softeners? Sodium chloride (i.e., salt).
Suddenly, it dawned on me: Awful looking hair and weird looking challah. Duh! Maybe it was the water! I immediately went to the computer to Google “the effects of hard water and soft water on bread baking,” and learned that, yes, this could be my problem. So, this past Friday, I tried baking with bottled water and, voila! My challah came out the way it is supposed to come out – soft and delicious.
By the way, my kids are all excellent cooks now, no thanks to the chemistry lessons I failed to impart.