First of all, I have to say I’m not Jewish. My sister converted when she got married, but I’m as agnostic as it gets. It’s one of the many reasons that I’m extremely unlikely to run for political office. I just don’t care about church, and it seems that’s a prerequisite … but that’s another post. I do love some traditionally Jewish food … especially the bread.
Dad used to make Challah. He’d make 3 and 4 loaves at a time, usually, and usually at Christmas. There’s something of a disconnect there, but whatever. Dad bordered on being Atheist. But I do remember him making this wonderful braided bread.
Challah is really a very simple bread. It’s flour, eggs, yeast, oil, sugar, and salt. But property prepared, it has the most wonderful, creamy texture and sweet, eggy flavor that is like nothing else. If you’re a bread enthusiast, I’d recommend you give it a try.
People seem to think the braiding is hard, but it’s not really. A three strand braid is a simple over/under motion that is fairly easy to master. I did find that letting the dough rest 10 minutes after splitting it into 3 parts makes the dough much easier to roll out into strands and work with. As long as you pinch the ends together well so the braid holds together, you’ll wind up with a really attractive loaf. It may take a few times to practice, but I was always at least as good, or better, at braiding my daughters’ hair as my ex-wife because I made this bread. It’s good to have skills.
So here’s the deal. You’ll need:
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (1 1/2 packages)
5 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon + several pinches kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
Mix together the yeast, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the water, 1 1/4 cups of the flour, the salt, and the oil. Mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add 2 of the eggs, the remaining 4 tablespoons sugar, and half of the remaining flour and mix until incorporated. Attach your dough hook. Add the rest of the flour and knead on medium speed for 8-10 minutes, until the dough has a satiny texture. Add sprinkles of flour if necessary until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and place in a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 2 1/2 hours.
Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Punch down and Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces and let them rest for 10 minutes. Roll them into strips about 10-14 inches long. Press the 3 strips together at one end and then braid the dough strips, Pinch the ends together and transfer to the prepared baking sheet lined with silicone mat or parchment paper. Cover with a damp towel and let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. 20 minutes before baking. Whisk the remaining egg in a cup or bowl with 3T water and brush the loaf with the egg wash. Sprinkle with poppy seeds and kosher salt, if desired. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn once during baking for even browning if your oven heats unevenly. I’ve got a pizza stone in the bottom of my oven to help it maintain a more constant temperature after preheating, but I turn my loaves anyway. Just a habit I got into over the years, and it seems to help the results.
The picture really doesn’t do it justice. I have to say that there are few things as satisfying as home made bread, and I really enjoy people enjoying what I bake.
Bread is a lot like chemistry. It’s one of the only things I do in the kitchen where I actually follow a recipe more than once. Most things I cook, I either make up as I go along, or use a recipe once and then pretty much make it my own. Bread, though, I’ve done more than anything else, but have never really branched out and tried anything on my own. I have done it often enough to be able to adjust recipes to make them work … adding flour or water or something to make the dough come together properly. Maybe it’s about time to start experimenting on my own.
There was a lot more to tonight’s dinner. I smoked a fresh ham (no EasyWider jokes, please), made risotto, and boiled the hell out of some green beans just like my grandmother used to do. My sister made Prasna, an egg-spinach-cheese dish that’s great for breakfast as well as dinner. The Challah is wonderful for breakfast too … toasted with some peanut butter.
The best news is, we had a great Easter dinner with family and good friends, good food, nice wine … and there are plenty of leftovers.