Noni Doni’s 12 Bakes of Christmas (4, 5 & 6): Yeast Breads: Fennel Sticks, Challah & Rustic Rosemary Bread

I am a person of my word, and by golly, if I promised 12 Bakes of Christmas (before Christmas) then I will come through with those recipes, even if there are (gulp) 9 recipes left to publish. It just means publishing multiple recipes in each food story. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since every time I publish a new recipe it means that one of A News Cafe’s recent stories is pushed off the homepage.

It’s a weird time to live in here in Shasta County, because as I’m publishing holiday recipes, the North State is being overrun by anti-establishment folks who are making good on their goal to dismantle anything related to oversight and control, from local government and school districts to even water boards. Case in point on the education front, R.V. reported last night on the current chaos happening at the Gateway School District.

Many citizens see the Gateway nightmare as, well, the gateway to what lies ahead for other school districts, councils and boards. As one friend put it, what’s happening at the Gateway Unified School District is the canary in the mineshaft; scenes of things to possibly come.

But the holidays continue, calamity or not, and so will the recipes (but so will the news stories).

Click here for Noni Doni’s current 12 Bakes of Christmas.

Bring on the breads

Hopefully you’re up to speed with the 12 Bakes of Christmas with the first three holiday recipes: English Toffee, Chocolate Crackles and Mexican Wedding Cakes (also called Russian Tea Cakes and Snowballs; whatever, they’re little balls of powdered-sugar covered deliciousness).

Mysterious Chico Inn Breadsticks

Background: I’ve had this recipe for nearly 20 years. It was given to me by Diane Hawthorne, who said the recipe was 25 years old at that point; clipped from a now-nonexistent Bon Appetit magazine. So between my 20 years of having this recipe and Hawthorne having it 25 years before that, now we’re talking about a recipe that’s nearly a half-century old. I only mention this to head off at the pass inquiries about whether the Chico Inn Breadsticks were from “our” Chico, about 70 miles away, because I asked, and Hawthorne didn’t think so.

Yes, this requires yeast, but please do not let that intimidate you, because this recipe is basically made in one big bowl, without any fuss. I bypass the standing mixer and mix everything with a wooden spoon. It’s super easy. Really. I love the fennel seed, but if you don’t like fennel, or you don’t have it, it’s fine to omit it. You could even add finely chopped rosemary, if you want that herby flavor.

Another interesting part of this recipe is the addition of beer, but not a whole can. So, depending upon the hour of the day, you can cook with some and drink the rest.  Last, the recipe gives measurements to cut the breadsticks, but as in this photo below, they can vary in size. There’s so much in life that’s out of our control, but these are your breadsticks, and you have control over whatever size you wish.

Make your breadsticks whatever size you want. (If these breadsticks look a bit raggedy, it’s because they were the only ones left over following a party.)

Chico Inn Breadsticks

1 envelope active dry yeast (about 2 and 1/4 teaspoons)
3/4  cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3/4 cup room temperature beer
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with some water to make it brushable)
Course salt (optional)

In a large bowl combine yeast and water and let stand for 10 minutes to proof. Stir in the next five ingredients and blend well.

Stir in enough flour to make a stiff dough (4 to 4 1/2 cups). Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. (Don’t clean up that floured surface yet. You’ll need that surface for later.) Clean and dry the original bowl, and light grease with oil (olive oil if possible). Place the dough in the oiled bowl in a warm, draft-free place and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. (If you don’t cover it, the dough will develop a crusty skin.) Let it rise until it’s doubled.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Punch the dough down and let it rest briefly. Lightly grease baking sheet(s), or line with parchment paper. On floured board roll dough with a rolling pin to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into strips about 1/4 inch by 7 inches. Gently roll the strips between your hands until dough is about 8 inches long and place on a cookie sheet. Do not let the strips touch one another. Carefully (so you don’t tear the dough) brush the egg wash over the dough strips. Lightly sprinkle with salt, if you want.

Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Makes about 6 dozen.

Happy “Challah” Days

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread that’s often eaten on the Sabbath and other religious occasions. It’s referred to as an egg bread, well, because of the number of eggs in the recipe. If you’ve ever eaten brioche, the taste and texture is very similar to challah. Classic challah is braided, either in a long loaf or a circle.

This recipe was adapted from one found in The Silver Palate Cookbook. The ingredients are the same, but I have simplified the instructions.

It’s pretty difficult to find fresh, authentic challah in Redding. So you can make it yourself. Back when I had a California Cottage Food Law permit, I sold my homemade challah, along with other baked items. I do not know who that Doni was, because now I cannot imagine baking and selling anything.


In the second row and beyond are loaves of challah that Doni once baked and sold, along with her sour cream coffee cakes.


2 cups milk
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
4 room temperature eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (bread flour works best)

Put milk, ONLY 6 tablespoons of the butter (reserve 2 tablespoons for later) and all the sugar in a microwavable bowl. Heat for 2 minutes. Remove and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Return the bowl to the microwave and bring the contents to a boil. (Or, bring everything to boil on your stovetop.)

Stir the mixture and then pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Let cool to about 110 degrees.

Add the yeast and whisk well. (It will appear slightly lumpy. Don’t freak.) Let it sit about 10 minutes, or until the yeasty-milk mixture looks foamy and bubbly. Now add ONLY 3 eggs (reserve 1 for later) and salt to the milky-yeast mixture and stir well.

Using a heavy wood spoon, stir in the flour, a few cups at a time, until the dough is sticky.

Generously flour your work surface, then pour the sticky dough onto it. Sprinkle a bit more flour on top of the dough, so you can start to fold it and knead it without getting your fingers stuck in the dough. (Try using the karate-chop part of your hand, and avoid pushing your fingers deep into the dough during this sticky phase.)

Knead the dough. Turn it, fold it, push it, turn it, fold it, push it. Repeat those methodical steps until your dough is soft and supple. Flour your work surface as needed.

Use hot water to wash the bowl in which the dough was made. (Don’t wash the dough bowl with dish soap; too great a risk of having the dough taste soapy. Dry the bowl well. Now use the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to generously smear inside the bowl.

Place dough in the bowl and rub it around in the bowl to mop up some butter. Then flop the dough over, so the dough now has butter on its top and bottom. Cover the dough with a towel (so a crust doesn’t form, which might curb its rising potential).

Set the bowl in a dry, draft-free warm place (like an oven that was turned on recently and then turned off). Let the dough rise for about 1 to 2 hours, or until your dough is about double its former size. (Sometimes I’ll use my finger to draw a line in the butter inside the bowl in anticipation of where double might be. Then, as the dough rises and approaches that line, I know it’s almost ready.)

Punch down the dough. (It’s fun.) Knead the dough enough to form it into an informal rectangle. Cut the dough into 2 equal pieces. (Or, if you want 4 small loaves, cut into 4 equal pieces.)

Roll each section into about an 18-inch-long rope. (If you want shorter, fatter loaves, make the rope shorter. If you want longer, thinner loaves, make the rope even longer.) Now cut the rope into thirds.

Firmly pinch the three pieces together at one end, and braid. (It’s easier if you braid with the lengths pointing toward you, instead of trying to braid sideways. Anyone who’s ever braided hair will have the advantage here.) At the end of the braid, pinch the ends tightly and tuck under slightly.

Sprinkle baking sheets with corn meal (parchment paper is fine under the corn meal). Set loaves on the baking pans, leaving room between the loaves so they can spread out. Cover with the same towels and let rise again, but this time only about 1 hour, until the loaves aren’t quite double in size. (They’ll rise more during baking.)

Brush with the egg wash made from beating the 1 remaining 1 egg with 1 tablespoon of water).

Bake on the middle rack of a pre-heated 350-degree oven for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and sound slightly hollow when thumped.

Makes 2 large or 4 small loaves. (Challah makes terrific French toast, too.)

Easiest yeast bread of all

This last bread is one of the easiest breads to make. It’s rustic and goes with everything from prime rib to turkey. It’s also egg-less and uses olive oil instead of butter. It’s an Italian bread called panmarino, or Rosemary Bread. Speaking of rosemary, if you live in the North State I hope you have rosemary growing where you live. Rosemary thrives in the heat, it smells great, and bees love it.

This bread was adapted from The Italian Baker cookbook by Carol Field. If you’re a yeast-bread novice, this is a good place to start.

The same recipe without rosemary. Note star design made by slashing the dough rounds after the second rise, before baking.

Like the bread-stick recipe, for this recipe I forgo the stand mixer and mix by hand with a wooden spoon in a large bowl.

Rustic Rosemary Bread

3 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105 – 115 degrees)
1 cup milk, room temperature
1/3 cup olive oil
3 1/2 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried)
1 tablespoon salt
About 6 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 to 1/2 teaspoons course sea salt

(Have ready for later a spray bottle filled with water.)

Stir the yeast, warm water, milk and oil in a large bowl. Stir and let stand 20 minutes.

Stirring in 3 to 4 additions at a time, combine the rosemary, salt and flour into the yeast mixture. Stir until dough comes together.

Dump dough onto a floured surface and cover with a clean towel. While it rests rise and wash your dough bowl with hot water (no soap). Grease the bowl with olive oil. Set aside.

Knead the rested dough on its  floured surface until the dough is velvety, elastic and smooth, about 8 to 10 minutes. The dough will be somewhat moist and may have slight blisters — air bubbles — beneath the surface.

(Keep your floured work surface for later.)

First rise: Place the kneaded dough in the clean, oiled bowl and cover with a clean towel or plastic wrap (or place the entire bowl inside a large plastic bag). Let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Shaping and second rise: Gently punch the dough down on the lightly floured surface, but don’t knead it. Cut the dough in half and shape each section into a round ball. Place the loaves on a slightly oiled cookie sheet – not touching. Cover the loaves with the same towel, and let rise 45 to 55 minutes (but not until truly doubled).

Baking: Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Just before putting the cookie sheet in the oven, slash the top of each loaf in an asterisk, star design or whatever you want with a razor blade or sharp knife.

Sprinkle half the course salt into the cuts. Bake 10 minutes, but wait; three times during that bake quickly open the oven door and spritz the bread with water from the spray bottle.After 10 minutes reduce the oven’s heat to 400 degrees and bake 30 to 35 minutes longer. Cool completely on racks.

Makes 2 round loaves


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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