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Bread bulletin: Charcoal braid

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ebony and ivory, live together in perfect harmony... everybody sing along now!
It's a Saturday and normally, I would be making a whole lot of bread rolls for Crazy Juliet sandwiches that Veggie Chick and I sell on Mondays at the office.

For next week, VC is making chicken loaf and my sandwich is broccoli-cheese (pic, right). However, I didn't get many orders (maybe the vegetarians are all on leave ­­– it's the school holidays, after all) so I don't have to make as many buns as usual. That gives me time to concentrate on some other kind of bread for myself.

There are a few items in my current docket of breads-I-want-to-try-making, but I've been too tired to attempt any (I've been nodding off at the unusually early hour of 9pm every night this past week! Last night it was 8.25pm!). There's charcoal bread, basically a challah which I want to braid with a plain dough for a two-toned effect; a rye (the last one I made had the look and, err... "firmness" of a brick!); something with malt flour, which I just discovered; a sourdough using the starter that I have neglected and should start feeding again; and bagels that are steamed instead of poached. Ambitious, right? (I highlighted the items just to see for myself.)

I'd better get to it...
* * *
As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I decided to start off my pursuits with the charcoal bread. I had not only never used charcoal powder before, this was also the first time I would be making a six-strand braid. By 11.02am, the dough for the sandwich rolls was proofing and I was pulling out a challah recipe for the braid. I had to halve the amounts for two portions as I needed to add the charcoal powder to one part.

At around noon, the sandwich rolls were already in the oven and both the plain and charcoal doughs were proofing. I started braiding an hour later and the loaf was out of the oven at 2.25pm.

The activity was pleasant and effortless; I enjoyed it tremendously. I was rather pleased with myself when the braid turned out perfectly although I ruined it slightly when I was loosening the loaf from the baking tin with a butter knife and accidently stabbed the side. I finally feel worthy of submitting this recipe to YeastSpotting.

For those who are wondering, I got the charcoal powder from Chang Tung in Taman Megah, PJ. I read a blog from someone in the US who got real bamboo charcoal from Chinatown and ground it down to a powder herself.

I had to have a slice, but I'm keeping the rest for my family ­­– we're having a barbecue tomorrow. The powder is tasteless but it does add that lovely ebony colour and is said to be good for health. Here's some information about it.

Makes one large braided loaf

Plain dough
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar (or ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon malt powder)
½ tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons olive/vegetable oil
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
1½ to 2 cups bread flour

Charcoal dough
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar (or ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon malt powder)
½ tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons olive/vegetable oil
1 egg
2 tablespoons charcoal powder
½ teaspoon salt
1½ to 2 cups bread flour

2 tablespoons warm water + ¼ teaspoon salt
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)

  1. Each portion of dough is not a large amount, so they can be kneaded by hand or in an electric mixer. 
  2. Measure out all the components for both doughs before you start mixing and kneading. You want to prepare the doughs one after the other immediately so that they can proof almost simultaneously. If you can get two mixers going on at the same time, or do the mixing of each portion with someone's help, that would be ideal! 
And now on to the method.

    • Prepare the plain dough first. Place yeast, sugar (or sugar and malt powder) and water in a large bowl. Whisk to mix, cover and set aside about 10 minutes until mixture is foamy.
    • Whisk in the molasses, oil and egg. Add salt and start adding the flour a half cup at a time, mixing it in until the mixture starts coming together. If dough is wet, add flour a tablespoon at a time. Mix until a soft but still sticky dough forms. Cover and set aside for five minutes.
    • Knead dough for 10-12 minutes until smooth and elastic. If kneading by hand, do so on a surface lightly dusted with flour. (Even when I use an electric mixer, I like to knead the dough in the last few minutes by hand.)
    • Form into a ball, place in a greased bowl and cover with a tea towel. Set aside to proof until doubled in size, 40-50 minutes (it doesn't take very long when you live in warm climes).
    • Prepare the charcoal dough in the same way as the plain dough, adding the charcoal powder with the egg. 
    • When both doughs have doubled in size, knock them down gently and form each one into a ball again. Leave to rise a second time for just 20 minutes.
    Meteoric risers
    Once the dough has finished the second rise, place on a lightly floured surface and gently press out the air. Cut each portion into three equal pieces and roll each piece into a 25cm rope. Arrange the six strands, alternating colours, next to each other in a row and pinch the ends together. 
    Start off with strands; and the finished braid
    Now, the braiding. I learned how to do it from this video at Chai Time. It's well presented and much easier to follow than just written or pictorial instructions. I documented my own braiding in pictures and if you'd like to see the presentation with instructions, here's the tutorial. I'm afraid I might forget how to do the braiding, so this document is more for my own benefit.

    Remember not to braid too tightly or the dough will tear as it rises.

    Preheat the oven to 190°C half an hour before you're ready to bake the braid.
    Blue poppy seeds on the light dough, white sesame seeds on the dark
    Once the oven is ready, brush the loaf with salt solution and sprinkle with the seeds if using. Place in the oven to bake for 30-40 minutes or until the top is glossy and golden brown. Cool on a rack. 



    1. Nice.... lucky this wasn't our challenge!

    2. Gorgeous! Very neat braiding:D

    3. Charcoal bread is interesting. Had a taste of some charcoal bread recently from a new bakery (named Lavender at Mid Valley) and they were surprisingly sweet to the taste. Not sugary sweet. Just a hint of sweeteness...which is nice. They used bamboo charcoal.

    4. What an unusual and pretty bread.

    5. Lovely job with the braiding! Very interesting bread.

    6. Wow, what a striking loaf. When I read the name of it, I thought it was just referring to the coloration and not actual charcoal. Now I'm intrigued; I'll have to find out more. Thanks!


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