In June 1996, my alcohol-fueled world came crashing down. Physical illness, demoralization, then 30 days at a treatment center followed one another in rapid order. Getting sober was transformational, but I needed a hobby when I reentered the real world, something to fill all those hours that used to be devoted to boozing. Someone suggested a challah baking class. I was a food lover and halfway decent cook already, so I figured, “Sure, why not?”
Bread baking, it turned out, was something I was destined to do.
During years of regular weekend flour flinging, I developed an affinity for the breads of my Jewish heritage: bagels, bialys, rye, and challah, of course. After occasional appearances at the Portland (Oregon) Farmers Market, where the bagels became a hot item, I was recruited to help start a Jewish deli in town. That led to co-authoring a book, The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, which featured all my Jewish bread recipes. It is long out of print, but still a source of immense pride and a wealth of information about Jewish deli food in its many manifestations.
There was one bread recipe that didn’t fit the book — it has no Jewish connection — but among friends and family, and especially their children, it remains the most popular of all the breads I make. I adapted it from an old James Beard book, Beard on Bread. Everyone just calls it “the Cheese Bread,” which is as good a name as any.
The Cheese Bread is not hard to make if you have any experience baking bread. The most difficult step is incorporating the chopped cheese into the dough before final shaping and transferring the unbaked loaves into loaf pans. Practice makes perfect. The type of cheese you use — some is grated or shredded and goes into the mixer with the other ingredients, and the rest is cubed for adding to the risen dough — depends on preference and budget. I like to use an extra sharp cheddar for its strong tangy flavor. If you do not like that taste, you can substitute or combine a milder cheddar or an alpine cheese such as Gruyere. Also, for the portion of the cheese that goes into the mixer, you can use nearly any hard or semisoft cheese, such as a good Parmesan, Asiago, or aged Gouda. Add a tablespoon or two of roasted onion or garlic for good measure.
Two other tips: First, the melted cheese tends to ooze during baking, so using a nonstick loaf pan, preferably silicone or silicone-lined, will prevent hot loaves from sticking and tearing during removal. Second, while the recipe includes both weight and volume for each ingredient, do yourself a favor and have a kitchen scale on hand. Volumes for bread ingredients can vary substantially depending on who is doing the measuring. Weights are far more accurate to achieve proper ratios and you can scale up or down as desired.
The Cheese Bread Recipe
Makes 2 medium (approximately 1½-pound) loaves
½ ounce (approximately 15 grams; 2 packages) yeast, instant yeast if available
1¼ pounds (600 grams; 2¼ cups) water, room temperature
2 ounces (60 grams; ½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 pounds (900 grams; 7 cups) bread flour
1½ ounces (40 grams; 3 tablespoons) granulated sugar
¾ ounce (20 grams; 2 tablespoons) kosher salt
1¼ pounds (600 grams) cheddar cheese, about 2 ounces grated or shredded, the remainder cut into ¼-½-inch chunks (see introductory note)
Step 1: In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, add the yeast and most of the water. Let them sit for a minute or two until the yeast dissolves, then add the melted butter, dry ingredients, and shredded cheese. Mix at lowest speed to incorporate (approximately 2 to 3 minutes), scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary. Increase mixer speed to medium low and mix for another 2 to 3 minutes. If needed, add the remaining water, a little at a time, until a soft, slightly to somewhat sticky dough has formed. Finish mixing at medium high speed for about another 4 minutes, or until the dough has a little gloss and a supple, soft feel.
Step 2: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead by hand for a minute or two, then form a rough ball by folding corners and edges into the middle, flipping the dough over and rounding with one or both hands. Place the ball of dough in a lightly oiled bowl, rolling the ball around to coat, then cover with plastic wrap or a lightly floured kitchen towel and allow to rise until roughly doubled in bulk, 1½ to 2 hours.
Step 3: Once the dough is fully risen, remove the plastic from the bowl and pat any excess oil off the dough with a paper towel. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into two equal-sized, roughly square or rectangular pieces. Using your hands, flatten and, if necessary, shape each piece of dough in turn. (If the dough resists shaping, allow it to rest for a few minutes, then continue.)
Step 4: Spread about half of the chunked cheese evenly on top of each piece of dough, leaving a little room around the edges. Press the cheese well into it. Then, moving quickly, fold the dough over on itself in thirds, as one would fold a business letter, pinching the edges to prevent cheese from falling out the sides. (Alternatively, fold just the top couple inches of the dough over, pinch the edges, then pinwheel the dough to the other end.) To seal the bottom of the loaf, pinch the seam that forms after folding (or rolling). Then, flip the folded piece of dough over, seam side down, and tuck and press the ends under the formed loaf to seal. Roll the loaf back and forth on the work surface to finish sealing and to lengthen it to the approximate size of the loaf pan.
Step 5: If you’re not using silicone or silicone-lined loaf pans, spray your pans generously with cooking spray before placing the loaves in them. Cover them loosely with lightly oiled sheets of plastic or lightly floured kitchen towels. Set aside to rise for 1 to 1½ hours (or longer if your kitchen is cold), until the loaves just begin to dome above the top of the pans. When the loaves are close to risen, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Once the loaves have finished rising, remove the covering and slash them lengthwise down the center with a very sharp edge (knife, lame, razor blade, or scalpel). Immediately place them in the oven, ideally on a silicone mat-lined sheet pan to catch any oozing cheese.
Step 6: Bake for approximately 40 minutes, turning or rotating the pans once or twice to ensure even baking, until the loaves are light to medium golden. If they appear to be browning too quickly, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Fully baked loaves should show a temperature of at least 190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center. Remove the loaves from the pans as soon as possible after they come out of the oven; otherwise, the cooling cheese can cause them to stick. If a loaf does not at first slip easily from the pan, run the edge of a spatula around the inside surface of the pan to loosen it. This usually works. Banging the bottom of the loaf pan on the work surface a couple times can also help. Allow the loaves to cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before serving.
Michael Zusman has been writing about food and restaurants in his Portland, Oregon, hometown and elsewhere for 20 years. He loves to travel and his spirit animal is the sloth.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep