Learning to bake can present a bit of a conundrum. There are so many different types of breads, pastries and baked goodies that I’ve had a hard time deciding what to experiment with next. Usually, I have an idea in mind, I do some research, narrow in on my approach and move forward. But sometimes I have no idea where to start. I sit at the table and thumb through cookbooks and read recipes and hope to find some inspiration in the writing of other bakers. That’s what happened when I decided to make challah.
Challah is a fluffy braided egg bread most closely associated with Jewish holidays. According to tradition, the Sabbath and other holiday meals are supposed to start with two loaves of bread, which pays homage to the manna from heaven that sustained the Jewish people after their exodus from Egypt. Manna didn’t fall on holy days, but the day before Sabbath or a holiday, God would send down a double ration to keep his people fed, thus the tradition of the “double loaf” at the holiday table. Challah is not only delicious but as a braided bread its also stunning in appearance. My father is an expert challah baker and I have always been impressed with his ability to turn out beautiful and tasty challah. This felt like an excellent direction for my next project.
Most traditional Jewish challah recipes steer clear of any dairy, which according to Jewish dietary laws would preclude it from being served with meat. I read a number of different recipes and settled on one that my Jewish ancestors would most certainly not approve of – it contained milk and butter. This bread starts like any other bread recipe by proofing 1 1/2 tablespoons of active dry yeast in half a cup of 90 degree water and a pinch of sugar. While my yeast proofed, I mixed up the wet ingredients. This recipe called for one cup of whole milk and one stick of butter heated together until the butter melts. Once the butter is melted, 1/3 of a cup of sugar, one tablespoon of honey and 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt get mixed in until they disolve. The milk mixture is allowed to cool to about 90 degrees, is added to the proofed yeast and finally four large eggs go in and it all gets mixed up. Then approximately 6 cups of bread flour gets mixed in until the dough starts to come together, then the kneading begins.
This dough is relatively soft and I gave it about 10 minutes of kneading in the mixer, followed by 10 minutes of kneading by hand. The egg yolks give it a pleasant yellow color and the butter and honey add a sweet aroma to this glorious dough. This recipe makes enough dough for two large loaves, so it needs a large container for rising. I buttered the inside of my bread bin, laid the dough in the bottom and covered the top with plastic wrap and a towel. I gave it an hour and a half for it’s first rise, setting it near the vent of my oven which was set to 170 degrees. During that time, it doubled in volume, I deflated it and gave it a second rise of about an hour, which allowed it to double in size once again. The multiple rise technique allows the yeast to create lots of air bubbles in the dough, yeilding a fluffy, airy bread. After the second rise, the air bubbles were clearly visable. I turned the dough out and started working on the finished loaves.
Braiding dough is no easy task and it requires a careful eye when dividing it up. Each piece of dough needs to be exactly the same size and shape to make a perfect looking challah. I patted the dough out into a huge rectangle, being careful not to deflate it too much. I cut it in half, then patted each half out into a smaller rectangle, then cut each rectangle into thirds. Each one of those pieces gets rolled into a long baguette-shaped loaf. In one set of loaves, I sprinkled raisins in the middle. A set of three loaves are lined up side by side on the board, pressed together at one end and braided, end over the middle, until you reach the end. The ends are pressed together, then folded underneath. My first attempt was a little sloppy and my challah looked lumpy, uneven and was much wider on one end. But my second attempt using the loaves with the raisins in them was pretty close to perfect. The braided loaves are set on baking sheets, covered with a towel and given their final rise of about 40 minutes.
After the final rise, the loaves are puffy and full and ready to be baked. But before they go into a 375 degree oven, they are brushed with an egg wash of one beaten egg and a little bit of water, which gives the challah a golden and shiny exterior. I brushed the outside of the loaves with egg wash, let them dry for a few minutes, then brushed them again before putting them into the oven. After 20 minutes in the oven, I brushed them again with the egg wash, then let them bake for another 15 minutes.
By the time these loaves of challah came out of the oven, my house was filled with the strong aroma of fresh bread. They were so beautiful I wanted to rip right into one of these loaves when it was piping hot. It was a tremendous challenge to keep my hands off until they cooled enough to slice. I sliced the non-raisin loaf first and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. It was buttery and eggy and fluffy and slightly sweet and divine. The next morning, I made my favorite breakfast – challah french toast with real maple syrup.
I put a little bit of vanilla and a shake of cinnamon in my french toast custard mixture and the slices of challah absorb it like little sponges. I could eat challah french toast every day and never get sick of it.
So, another baking experiment brought me success. Now I’ll be on the lookout for the next inspiration. I’ve been toying with the idea of yeast donuts and using some of that dough for cinnamon rolls. It’s about to be berry season here in New Hampshire and that means pie crust and tart shells. I can always use a refresher course in making that kind of short dough. Then there’s brioche and cakes and cream puffs made from pate-a-choux and popovers and danish pastry and…and…and….sigh….the conundrum begins.