Bread is an important staple food in most cultures, but baking it yourself usually seems like too large of an undertaking for new cooks. Working with yeast takes some getting used to, and when you consider the multiple rises, baking bread can be downright time intensive. But the end result is usually so worth it that I urge you to try! My mom bakes bread weekly and I have such fond memories of baking bread with my campers at the hippie art/farm camp I used to work at in Asheville during the summers, but I haven’t really baked much bread on my own since having my own kitchen (this was one delicious exception).
This beautiful loaf of challah changed everything. Since spotting it on Yossy’s beautiful blog recently, I couldn’t stop thinking about the combination of bitter dark chocolate (because doesn’t chocolate make everything better?!) and fluffy rich egg-based challah. The addition of orange zest and saffron-infused milk sealed the deal for me – the faint citrusy taste pairs well here with the delicate spice and both elements give the dough a richer yellow/orange hue that I think turns out so beautifully.
Upon seeing this completed knotted loaf, I was instantly reminded of a portrait (possibly a self-portrait) by early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. The man depicted is shown looking directly at the the viewer, his gaze strong, and his face turned slightly towards us. Dressed in a dark, tightly-drawn fur collar that fades into the dark background, the subject wears an elaborately folded vibrant red turban, which is a straight-up replica of this beautiful challah. Can’t you see it?!
Van Eyck was truly a master oil painter, and in fact, his skill was so substantial that Giorgio Vasari (the original art historian) initially credited him as the inventor of oil painting all together. He most likely was not the first to use this technique, but he may have been the first to totally master it. Van Eyck’s meticulous application of thin layers of oil paint gives the picture an incredible highly-detailed finish. This realistic technique is sort of a precursor to contemporary photorealistic paintings, and truly separated van Eyck from his peers working in Italy, whose styles were highly idealized to fit with the the Medici family’s artistic tastes at the time.
The idea that this may be a self-portrait of the artist has never been completely confirmed, but there are a couple notable clues. Perhaps the plainness of the face and total lack of flattery in the depiction is a hint that van Eyck did not have a specific patron to honor and please for this. Netherlandish portraits at this time were usually made for devotional or commemorative reasons, and this secular picture was most likely not meant to impart a huge sense of status.
Another clue is van Eyck’s signature on the work, inscribed on the top and bottom portions of the frame. The top is inscribed with “Als Ich Can,” which translates to a pun on his name, “as I/Eyck can,” and the bottom translates from Latin to “Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433.” Artists at this time rarely signed their work, but this artist usually did. Scholars believe that the top inscription may have been more of a description of the work, identifying it as a portrait of the artist.
While this picture leaves this all up to interpretation, there is less hidden meaning in this challah – it is truly delicious, and there is no question about that!
Featured art: Jan van Eyck, A Man in a Turban (Self-Portrait?), 1433, oil on panel