When I think of homemade challah, the words warm, rich, golden and ambrosial come to mind. I find that baking my own is immensely rewarding. My house is filled with a wonderful yeasty aroma, the fresh bread is heavenly and, in the unlikely event there is any left over, nothing makes a better French toast or bread pudding.
This lovely golden egg-rich and light-textured bread is prepared much the same as the dough for traditional white bread, but it is a stiffer dough and is baked on a cookie sheet rather than in a loaf tin.
The only trick is in the braiding, but a “trick”, of course, is just knowing how to do something. Invariably, instructions on braiding bread tell you to lay three ropes of dough on a work surface and braid them horizontally, much as you would braid a pigtail. This technique is very likely to produce a long skinny loaf as there is a tendency to pull on the ropes as you braid them.
The technique suggested here, which I learned from Chef John Clancy, calls for four ropes rolled out slightly higher in the center and tapered toward the ends. The braiding is executed in an upward vertical manner and the loaf is then flipped on its side for that picture-perfect plump loaf.
2 packages rapid-rise yeast (about 5 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
5 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
3 eggs, lightly beaten
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
- Mix yeast, ½ teaspoon sugar, and 1 cup warm water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Set aside until foamy, about 5 minutes.
- Mix remaining sugar, flour, and salt in large bowl of electric mixer; add eggs, butter and yeast mixture. Using dough hook attachment, knead at low speed until smooth and satiny, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Form dough into a ball and let rise in a large, lightly buttered bowl covered with a damp towel until approximately doubled in size, about 1 hour. Deflate to original size, re-form into a ball, cover, and let rise again until doubled in size.
- Deflate dough again and turn onto a lightly floured work surface. Press dough into a rough square and cut into 4 equal pieces, preferable with a blunt object to seal in gases (a wooden spatula works well. Let rest for 10 minutes.
- Roll each portion of dough into an 18-inch rope that is thicker in the middle than at the ends, stretching dough as you roll. Place ropes on a large work surface to form an X and pinch in the center to seal. To finish the braid, follow the illustrated steps.
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Place braided dough on a lightly greased cookie sheet; cover with damp cloth and let rise until almost doubled, 30 to 45 minutes. Beat yolk with milk; brush entire loaf with this glaze. Sprinkle with poppy seeds and bake until bread is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer registers between 190 and 200 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer bread to a wire rack to cool.
- Braiding technique:
[Drawing #1] Make four ropes of equal length and lay them out in the shape of a four-pointed star; pinch them together in the center to seal. Think of the points as numbered one to four. Starting with point one fold it directly over the center, so that it lies beside point three. Then fold point three directly over the center, again creating a four-pointed star.
[Drawing #2] Now fold point four directly across the center so that it lies parallel to point two; then fold point two over the center, again creating a four-pointed star. Continue this one-side-to-the-other braiding, making sure to keep the bread upright until all the lengths have been folded. As you work, give the ropes a little slack when you reach the center and braid a little more tightly toward the ends. This will give the baked loaf the characteristic high in the middle shape.
[Drawing #3] Continue this one-side-to-the-other braiding, making sure to keep the bread upright, until all the lengths have been folded.
[Drawing #4] Pinch the end pieces firmly together at the top.
[Drawing #5] Lay the finished bread down on its side on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cover with a towel and let rise 30 minutes. After this third rising brush entire loaf with the egg yolk and milk glaze, dip a finger in the glaze, then in the poppy seeds and gently roll your finger over the loaf for an even topping. I just learned this technique from Maya of chaitimeblog.wordpress.com. As you can see from my photos, just sprinkling on the poppy seeds gives an uneven finish. Bake in the middle of a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes until the crust has turned a shiny golden brown. Place on a rack to cool. Happy Hanukka!
Variation: Add 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads dissolved in one teaspoon hot water in step one for a more golden color.
My recipe appeared in the March/April issue of Cooks Illustrated, 1994
Photos by sweetpaprika