When we were first talking about putting together A Year in Bread I made an innocent suggestion that we each share the first kind of bread we had baked, way back in the dark ages when we started baking. After a long moment of silence on the phone, one of us muttered something about 'whole wheat bricks' while another said something definitively negative. Then I was asked to describe my first, presumably failed loaf.
My first bread was easy to remember. Having grown up in a household where everybody cooked very well, I found myself looking for a specialty with which to distinguish myself just at the time that I moved from Orange County, with easily accessible bakeries and delis, to a small town in the Sierras where the only bakery in town was a pastie restaurant. Interesting but not exactly what a girl raised on bagels and good rye was looking for.
So bread became my 'special thing' for quite a few years. And the first bread I was determined to get a handle on was challah. Because, really, what's better than bread with a backstory you have to explain to your new friends in the FFA.
"Braids? How interesting."
"Did you know that the number of strands has meaning?"
"I know that more than three strands means that I can't braid it!"
"No silly, three strands stands for truth, peace, and justice." (This was close enough to 'peace, love and understanding' to get me a funny look – the tie-dyed shirt probably didn't help.)
I fearlessly plowed on
"Twelve strands is symbolic of the twelve tribes...Sometimes we make it like pull-apart rolls so you don't have to use a knife to cut it. Knives being an instrument of war and all..."
"That's the shape I like for when it's going to be thrown, because it's almost like rolls."
"Well, placing bread in someone's hands is usually only done when they are in mourning, so throwing bread is, um, a happy thing."
"Do you make any, you know, regular bread?"
Seriously, braiding aside, this is an extremely forgiving recipe, and a great one for beginning bakers and children to start with. It is essentially egg bread, sometimes almost a light brioche, especially when made my way with the less traditional inclusion of butter and, occasionally milk.
If the braiding is intimidating, simply divide the dough in half and shape into loaves for some excellent egg bread. Once you have mastered simple three strand braids, you can move on to variations.
This recipe is adapted from The New Book of Favorite Breads from Rose Lane Farm by Ada Lou Roberts. It is out-of-print and there are, honestly, better books out there. But this is the first bread book I owned and it holds a special place in my flour-covered heart. If I was buying a book for Challah and other Jewish breads, I'd get Maggie Glezer's A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World which has more than a dozen recipes for Challah and instructions for everything from a traditional Croatian Sun to a twelve stranded compound braid.
kitchenMage's not-quite-kosher Challah
In addition to its place on the Sabbath table, challah makes the best French toast ever and is also a great candidate for bread pudding. This recipe, having been developed for non-religious meals, uses butter and, sometimes, even milk; you can make it kosher, however, with a simple substitution.
Ingredient US Volume Metric Volume US Weight Metric Weight
water 1/2 cup 120 ml 4 oz g
sugar 1 tsp 5 ml 1/8 oz 4 g
instant yeast 4 1/2 tsp 23 ml 1/2 oz 14 g
powdered ginger 1/4 tsp 1 ml a pinch 1-2 g
water (or milk) 1 cup 235 ml 8 oz 225 g
bread flour 2 cups 475 ml 9 oz 250 g
sugar 1/4 cup 60 ml 2 oz 50 g
butter, softened 1/4 cup 60 ml 2 oz 55 g
eggs 2 2 2 2
AP flour 3 cups 710 ml 13 1/2oz 375 g
salt 1 tsp 5 ml 1/4 oz 8 g
egg yolk for egg wash 1
Dough EnhancersThere are a lot of things going on when you bake bread and playing chemist in the kitchen can help some of the processes along quite a bit.
One trick that I learned from Ada Lour Roberts is the use of ginger in the yeast slurry. The ginger gives the yeast a bit of a kick in the pants to get it going and also helps keep the bread fresh. The small amount used is undetectable in the finished product but it does make a bit of a difference. Use 1/4 teaspoon per two loaf recipe.
Diastatic malt breaks complex sugars down into malt, which can improve flavor, texture and promote a gorgeous golden brown crust. Use 1 teaspoon per two-loaf recipe.
Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) is another yeast enhancer with preservative qualities. Use 1/8 teaspoon per two-loaf recipe.
Gluten improves the rise and texture of bread, especially those with whole grain flours. Use 1 tablespoon per two-loaf recipe.
For information on other dough conditioners, check out Dough Enhancers: And How-To Use Them at the Bread Machine Digest.
To make this bread suitable for a kosher meal, you may omit the butter, substitute margarine, or even use olive oil, as Maggie Glezer does. As always, you may need to adjust the amount of flour used.
(These directions are for mixing by wand, err, I mean hand. Parenthetical directions are for those of you who are using a stand mixer.)
Proofing the yeast
Mixing the dough
In mixing bowl, stir 1 cup of water and 2 cups of bread flour together and mix to combine into wet dough, about 1 minute. Add yeast mixture and stir to combine into a soupy mess.
Beat the eggs lightly and add them to the bowl, along with the sugar, butter, salt and 2 cups of AP flour. Mix until a shaggy dough forms and turn out onto a counter that has the last cup of flour spread on it.
Knead by hand for 7-10 minutes. (If you are using a machine, mix on medium for ~3-4 minutes, adding some of the last cup of flour if needed, before turning out on floured counter and kneading for a minute or two.) The dough should be smooth and elastic.
Place dough in clean bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk.
Shaping the braids
Turn the dough out on a lightly floured counter and gently knead a few strokes to deflate the dough. Divide dough in half, cover one piece and set aside.
Divide the piece of dough into equal thirds. Roll each third into a rope of fairly even size – it should not taper too much towards the ends – and about the length of the baking sheet. Something like this.
Lay the three pieces of dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet. It is okay if they hang over the end of the pan a little bit, some of the length will be taken up when you braid the loaf.
Starting at one end, braid the ropes together, not too tightly. Pinching the ends together, tucking the ends under neatly.
An astute reader will note that, while the text reads "starting at one end..." the pictures show "starting in the middle" – not exactly a match. This is because I was originally going to make a double braid where a smaller braid is placed on top of a larger one. When I make that loaf, I like the look of both ends being braided with the "v" facing outward from the center. This leaves that odd little bit in the middle where the braid reverses, which is, of course, hidden by the top braid. In this case, however, I ended up making two single braids after all so I just undid half of that loaf and rebraided it.
Cover loaves and let rise until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375°f/190°c. Beat one egg yolk with a few drops of water and brush the egg wash on the loaves.
Bake bread on the middle rack, rotating pan 180° after 15 minutes. A pair of braids will bake in ~30 minutes, other shapes will vary a bit so watch it. When the bread is done it will be a lovely deep, yet still golden, brown with a nice egg-wash shine. Almost too pretty to eat. But not quite.
Let the bread cool completely before slicing, or if you subscribe to the tradition, tearing off chunks and tossing it across the table. To freeze, double-wrap in saran and placed in a freezer bag. Thaw still wrapped bread and serve as usual.