I've somewhat recently decided that it's time to enter the world of bread baking. I'm always so envious of other bloggers who seem to produce loaf after loaf of pure perfection, like Jude over at Apple Pie, Patis, and Pâté, and of course Susan at Wild Yeast. But man, that lingo! Never have I felt so intimidated by such a foreign-sounding set of descriptors! Luckily, I found that when I turned to the now-classic The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, everything in this recipe was explained, and I could (almost magically) actually understand what I was supposed to do. For some reason, I just felt safe and well-guided using this book. And I'm not disappointed with the outcome, either!
Even though my family is not Jewish (or at least, hasn't been for a few generations, I think there's a Jewish branch or two somewhere further back in the family tree) challah bread is something that most reminds me of home. When I was a kid growing up in Denver (before we moved to the 'burbs), we lived in a predominately Jewish neighborhood and challah always seemed to find it's way to our table. Of course, it's great for sandwiches and spreads and, let's face it, just snacking on it's own, but one area where challah really shines is french toast. And whenever my sister or I spotted a loaf sitting on the counter, we knew that's what it meant.
So I've had challah in the back of my mind for a while now, as something to work up to. I finally took the plunge last night with, as I said, the help of Peter Reinhart. The only adjustment I had to make to the recipe had to do with yeast. Reinhart calls for 1 1/3 teaspoons instant yeast to be mixed in with the dry ingredients, as instant yeast doesn't need to be bloomed before it's added to a recipe. All I have and all I could find, on the other hand, was active dry, which does need to be activated by warm water before it can work it's magic. So. I just replaced the instant with what I had by using 1/4 cup of the warm water that was to be added to the wet ingredients to bloom the yeast. Then I added the yeast in with the wet ingredients along with the rest of the water. I may have gotten lucky, but it worked, so I'm giving you the recipe with active dry yeast below.
When recreating this recipe here, I'm going to assume that if you're brave enough to bake bread from the internet, you know what you're doing. Therefore, I won't go into the detail with which Reinhart presents this recipe. If you're a novice like me, I would suggest you just get the book and have a read-through. It will calm all of your fears away!
4 cups unbleached flour (remember to spoon your flour into the measuring cup!)
2 tablespoons sugar (can be doubled for a sweeter bread)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 teaspoons active dry yeast, bloomed in 1/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons room-temperature water
2 egg whites, whisked, for the wash
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Stir the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, whisk the wet ingredients together. Add the bloomed yeast to the wet ingredients and stir it up a bit. Add the wet ingredients to the dry.
Mix on low speed (or by hand) with a paddle attachment until the dough forms a ball. Add additional water, if needed.
Switch to the dough hook, or turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface. If kneading by hand, do that for 10 minutes. If using a mixer, mix on medium-low for 6. Your dough should be soft and smooth, but not sticky. Add a little more flour if it is. Once done, it should pass the windowpane test (link coming up).
Lightly oil a large bowl and form your dough into a boule. Put the dough in the oiled bowl and turn it so that the dough is coated with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment for 1 hour.
Kneed the dough for 2 minutes, form it back into a ball and place it back in the bowl. Cover again with the plastic wrap and allow it to ferment until it's 1.5 times the original size: about 1 hour.
Divide the dough into 3 equal parts, cover with a cloth and allow to rest for 10 minutes on the table. Next, roll the pieces out to 3 same-size strands and braid them together, starting in the middle. Place the braided bread on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and brush with the egg wash (keep some aside for the second round of egg-washing). Spray with some spray-oil and cover with plastic wrap for one more hour of proofing.
Brush the challah once more with egg wash and sprinkle with seeds if you like. Bake in an oven preheated to 350 for about 30 minutes. Rotate the pan, and bake for another 30. Transfer to a wrack and cool.
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