This last Saturday I woke up to the sun. The sun! Oh, it was nice. It’s funny how the weather can have such an impact on you. Instead of the usual grumbling and hiding under my covers to keep warm (let’s forget the fact that the sun doesn’t really have influence the temperature inside my house), I stretched out of bed like a lazy cat and proceeded to the kitchen to make some of this for breakfast.
(On a separate note, have you made your own granola? If you haven’t, try out that recipe. Even if you make your own granola, try out that recipe. I’m a little crazy about it.)
Anyway, the sun made for a nice morning, and a reminder that no, this chill and frost and rain will not last forever. But maybe even more importantly so, it made for a nice realization that I should be taking advantage of this winter a little bit more than I have been. Because really, the cold has its appeals. It gives me all the better reason to crank up my oven and bake something. And let’s not kid ourselves: once this winter passes and the sun shines constantly, we’ll all become romantically nostalgic for the dark winter months when baking felt more virtuous. So bake I will, starting with bread.
Whenever I reach for a bread recipe to make, it’s usually this challah recipe. And so it went on Saturday, when I decided that my oven had better start cooking something yeasted, and right away. I’m not sure why I always lean towards challah, seeing as 1.) I’m not Jewish, 2.) I suck at braiding, as you can see from my shameless looking finished loaf (and every other loaf of challah I’ve produced), and 3.) I should probably have made something a little more practical that I could have made sandwiches out of. But what can I say? I love challah, so that’s what I made.
In hindsight, I realize that this recipe may not be the most traditional of its kind. Usually challah doesn’t have any dairy in it, and as you can see in the recipe below, this one calls for butter. I never really caught this (once again, please be directed to #1 in the paragraph above), but now that I’ve always made it with butter and seen the results, I’m not sure I go without it. Butter just does that thing, you know what I mean? That allows you to toast up a slice of the challah and not even have to put a pad of butter on top, just because the crumb is already so delicious and flaky itself (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still put butter on top. It is butter, after all).
Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that I really like this recipe. As with most yeasted breads, it makes the house smell as close to nirvana as I think nothing else can. And yes, as with a lot of yeasted breads, this one does take some time and patience. But as always, the satisfaction of fresh baked bread (and challah of all things!) greatly outweighs any stretch of your patience that it may take. And besides, when you have these cold, never-ending winter days ahead of you, what better reason to sit around and make some bread.
(By the way, did you know it’s a rule that if you make challah, you must invariably make french toast? Yeah, because if you didn’t know it already, french toast is infinitely better when made with challah. And that’s reason enough to get started on making a loaf.)
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking
Makes one really large loaf
As I mentioned above, I am really god-awful at braiding. Really. I think the only braiding I’ve done before that is successful is the classic three-strand braid. However, I’m including the instructions for the beautiful four-strand just in case any of you out there are a little more apt in that department than I am.
2 packages (5 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup (250 ml) warm water (105-115 degrees F, 40-46 degrees C)
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature, plus 1 beaten for a glaze
5 cups (780 g) all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick, 125 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon poppy seeds, optional
To make the challah by hand (which, in my humble opinion, is preferable), dissolve the yeast with the warm water in a large bowl and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the sugar, the 3 eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the salt, and the butter until the dough comes together in a sticky mass. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, working in the remaining 1/2 cup of flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5-7 minutes. Remember, don’t be tempted to add too much flour: the dough will become less sticky with kneading and it should stay soft throughout the whole process.
Alternatively, if you’re making the challah with a stand mixer, dissolve the yeast and warm water in the 5 quart bowl of a stand mixer and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. As above, add the sugar, eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, salt and butter, and with the dough hook attached, knead on low speed. As it kneads, add in the remaining half cup of flour as necessary until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5-7 minutes. Like above, please don’t be tempted to add too much flour.
It’s almost impossible to over-knead, so when it doubt if your dough is elastic and smooth enough, knead some more. It should get that “feel” that bread has when it’s soft and flexible. Once kneaded, form the dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl. Move the ball of dough around so it gets covered by the oil (as to not dry out the top of the dough). Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until it doubles in bulk, about two hours.
Line a half sheet pan or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch dough down. Scrape dough out onto a clean work surface.
To make a 4-strand braid, cut the dough into four equal pieces. Using your palms and starting at the center working outward, elongate one piece by rolling it gently against the work surface with even pressure until you’ve formed a rope as long as the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining three pieces.
Line up the four strands in front of you horizontally. Cross the strand farthest from you across the other three strands so that it is nearest you. Cross the strand that is now next to it across the other two strands away from you. Position the outside strands so that they are away from the center ones, and position the center two strands perfectly horizontal. Bring the strand nearest you down between the two horizontal strands. Bring the strand farthest from you up and across to the opposite side. Again, bring the strand farthest from you down between the two straight strands. Bring the strand nearest you up and across to the opposite side. Staring from the strand nearest you, repeat the braiding until you reach the ends of the ropes. Pinch them together at both ends and tuck the strands under at the ends.
Place the braided loaf on the prepared pan, cover with a dry kitchen towel, and let rise again in a warm, draft-free spot until it nearly doubles in size and is spongy to the touch, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, position a rock in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F, or 180 degrees C.
Brush the braid gently with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the poppy seeds, if using. Bake the bread until it is deeply golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.