If there was one bread my family craves frequently, Challah would be it.
For me, there is nothing more transcendent than working with dough that is alive and full of life, so I am more than happy to accommodate to their requests for this yeasted delight.
Challah is plentiful in eggs which is responsible for that rich mouth feel and colour on the bread. Once braided, it is given 2 coats of egg wash. Brushing the dough twice creates an exterior with a veneer of flakiness akin to the buttery shards off of a croissant or Danish. Before it’s baked it can be sprinkled with toasty sesame or crunchy poppy seeds.
All the kneading required for this dough yields a fluffy, airy crumb. It has a delicate sweetness that pairs well with savoury or sweet items. Challah is a jack of all trades which is why we all adore it so much.
As you pull the bread out of the oven, it will have been sun-kissed and expanded tremendously. The sweet aroma permeates your home and puts air-fresheners and candles to shame. Should you have an audience in the moment of its removal, you will be showered with oohs and aahs.
Challah is a golden braided wonder that would cause Rapunzel to pout with jealously.
When the freshly baked, hot bread is given a rest to cool slightly, the best thing to do after is to slice a hearty piece for yourself and munch upon it like my mother does with child-like glee. It really needs no other adornments at this point. When it has gained some age over a few days, its flavours can be easily resuscitated with a light toasting and smeared with salted butter for the makings of a picture-perfect sandwich. It is also ideal for dunking in some whisked eggs and transformed into French toast. The possibilities are endless really… so, go on, what are you waiting for? Get to it and bake some Challah!
My recommendations and commentary are in italics. This recipe is from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) granulated sugar (increased to 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon (.25 ounce) salt (I used 1 1/2 tsp kosher)
1-1/3 teaspoons (.15 ounce) instant yeast
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) vegetable oil (I used sunflower)
2 large (3.3 ounces) eggs, slightly beaten
2 large (1.25 ounces) egg yolks, slightly beaten
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp to 1-1/8 cups (7 to 9 ounces) water, at room temperature
2 egg whites, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
Sesame or poppy seeds for garnish
Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). In a separate bowl (or glass measuring cup), whisk together the oil, eggs and yolks, and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture. Mix with a spoon (or on low speed with the paddle attachment) until all the ingredients gather and form a ball. Add the remaining water, if needed.
Sprinkle flour on the counter, transfer the dough to the counter, and knead for about 10 minutes (or mix at medium-low speed for 6 minutes with the dough hook), sprinkling in more flour if needed to make a soft, supple, but not sticky dough. The dough should register approximately 80°F (27°C).
Lightly oil a large bowl (skipped the oil). Form the dough into a boule (tight ball) and transfer into the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Ferment for 1 hour at room temperature.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead for 2 minutes to degas. Re-form it into a ball, return the ball to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and ferment for an additional hour. It should be at least 1-1/2 times its original size.
Remove the dough from the bowl and divide it into 3 equal pieces for 1 large loaf, or 6 pieces for 2 loaves (I weighed the pieces with a scale). (Or, for a celebration challah, divide it into 3 equal pieces and combine 2 of those pieces and form them into 1 large dough. Take this larger piece and divide it into 3 equal pieces. Take the smaller dough and divide it into 3 pieces as well; in the end, you will have 3 large pieces and 3 small pieces.) Regardless of the size of the loaves you decide to make, form each of the pieces into a boule, cover them with a towel, and let them rest on the counter for 10 minutes.(this will relax the gluten in the dough and allow it to be more pliable)
Roll out the pieces into strands, each the same length (I rolled mine to about 18 inches), thicker in the middle and slightly tapered toward the ends. Braid them using the 3-braid method shown. (If making the celebration challah, lay the smaller braid on top of the larger braid, gently pressing the smaller braid onto the larger to adhere.) Line a sheet pan with baking parchment and transfer the loaf or loaves to the pan (I braided mine right on the sheet pan to avoid the hassle of moving it around). Brush the loaves with the egg wash. Mist the loaves with spray oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap or place the pan in a food-grade plastic bag.
(refer to the end of this recipe under NOTE, should you wish to make a 4 braid strand)
Proof at room temperature for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the dough has grown to 1-1/2 times its original size.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) (325°F (160°C) for the celebration challah) with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Brush again with egg wash and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
Bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees (at this point, I would insert an oven probe thermometer into the bread if you own one) and continue baking for 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the loaf. The bread should be a rich golden brown and register 190°F (88°C) in the centre (I took mine out at 185F because it will continue to cook as it rests).
When done, transfer the bread to a rack and cool for at least 1 hour before slicing or serving (hard to do, but essential to help the structure of the bread set up).
Yield: Makes 1 large braided loaf, 2 smaller loaves, or 1 large double-braided celebration loaf ( You can keep it at room temperature in a cool dry spot wrapped well in plastic for 1-2 days. The bread can be sliced up afterwards and frozen in freezer safe bags. Store it away from items with strong odours. It can be kept in the freezer for 2-3 months)
NOTE: How To Make A Four-Strand Braid:Lay the strands side by side, and pinch them together at one end. For instruction purposes, think of the far left strand as #1, next is #2, then #3, and the far right is #4. Take the left-hand strand (#1) and move it to the right over strands #2 and #3, then tuck it back under strand #3. Take the right-hand strand (#4) and move it to the left over strands #3 and #1, then tuck it back under strand #1. Repeat this process until finished.- sourced from King Arthur Flour