My people have this thing that begins every Friday at sundown and goes until Saturday night. It’s called Shabbat, and it is meant to be our day of rest. Unfortunately it does not always work out that way in my world, but there is one thing that really does separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and that is making Challah bread.
If you haven’t had challah, it is a lot like brioche, panettone or greek easter bread (which I sometimes make in its place, because I love the sweet spices that are included in the dough). It is a rich, sweet, eggy dough that needs quite abit of rising time and is traditionally formed into a braid or a spiral. You can add raisins to your dough if you wish (golden raisins are the most commonly used) and you can also sprinkle poppy or sesame seeds over the top, after the eggwash.
The recipe I use most, comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Gourmet Cookbook, 2004 Edition, Edited by Ruth Reichl, and is more or less a traditional formula. I substitute 1/3-1/2 whole wheat flour for the white, and put in a little less sugar than they call for. Their recipe also calls for peanut oil, but you could use a different vegetable oil or even melted butter. As always, don’t forget to check the expiration date on your yeast and make sure your ‘warm water’ is around 100 degrees F.
Braided Challah, Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook
you can make this challah into two large, or four small loaves. This is definitely a half day project, as it has to rise three times before baking. The baked bread freezes extremely well.
For the Starter (really you are just ‘proofing’ the yeast here- making sure it’s active.):
3/4 cup warm water (~100 F)
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbs bread flour/all purpose flour
2 (1/4 oz) packets active dry yeast (about 5 tsp)
For the Dough:
1/2 cup + 1 Tbs peanut oil (you can also use canola or even melted butter)
1/2 cup sugar (I use 1/4)
2 Tbs kosher salt (if you only have table salt, use about 1 1/4 Tbs, it is saltier than kosher)
4 tsp honey
3 extra-large eggs, at room temp
2 extra large yolks at room temp
1 1/2 cups warm water (~100 F)
7 1/4 cups of flour (all purpose, bread flour, whole wheat or a mixture– I do not recommend that you use more than three cups whole wheat)
shortening, butter or non-stick spray for greasing baking sheet
cornmeal for dusting
1 extra large egg beaten with 2 Tbs sugar for the egg wash
Make the Starter:
In a very clean jar or small bowl mix together warm water, sugar, flour and yeast, stirring until yeast dissolves. Cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot until mixture foams reaches halfway up the side of the container. If mixture does not foam, begin again with new yeast.
Make the dough:
Fit a mixer with the paddle attachment (you can use a wooden spoon and a very large bowl if you do not have a mixer, but get ready to do some serious mixing and feel free to use your hands when the dough gets too thick). Add oil, sugar, salt, honey, eggs and yolks to bowl and beat together until blended. Add warm water and beat until sugar and salt have dissolved. Spread starter over batter and then add 2 3/4 cups flour, beating and scraping down the sides of the bowl ~ 5 minutes.
If using mixer, switch to dough hook. Add 4 more cups of flour (one at a time, if using mixer, half a cup at a time, if mixing by hand). Knead on a lox speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl until dough is elastic, 8-10 minutes (dough will be softer than normal bread dough).
Shape dough into a neat ball and transfer to a well-greased bowl to rise, make sure the top of the dough gets greased as well and cover with loosely plastic wrap and a towel. Put the bowl in a warm, draft free spot and let it rise until doubled in bulk ~ 2 hours.
Punch down dough, cover again with plastic wrap and let rise for another 45 minutes.
Turn dough out onto well floured surface and knead in remaining 1/3 cup flour. Let dough stand, covered with inverted bowl for 10 minutes.
Braid and Bake the Challah:
Generously grease a large baking sheet and dust with cornmeal, knocking off excess. Halve dough. Set one half aside, covered with inverted bowl. Divide other half into three equal pieces. Roll each piece on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch long rope. To form a 3-rope braid, place ropes parallel to each other about 1 inch apart. Pinch ends together and tuck under a bit and begin braiding by crossing ropes over whichever rope is center until you reach the end. Pinch ends together and tuck under. Do the same with the second half of dough.
Carefully transfer the loaves to prepared baking sheet (you may need to use two sheets) making sure they are at least 5 inches apart. Brush well with egg wash and sprinkle with seeds if using. Let loaves rise uncovered in a warm place for 30 minutes- during which you should preheat the oven to 375 F and place rack in the middle.
Bake loaves until they are deep golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped ~ 40 minutes (if loaves brown too quickly, cover with foil). Transfer to wire racks to cool.