Holla for Challah

I found myself without bread these last two days. *gasp*

I know. Tragedy. Bread is my usual breakfast – toast with an egg, or toast with cheese and some sort of fresh veggie, or just toast and butter when I’m feeling lazy. Bread is my snack when it’s not breakfast. I just had a delightful tomato sandwich for the first time a couple of days ago with the last bits of leftover bread I could scavenge from the freezer. I believe bread would be the saddest food for me to go without – over chocolate, over bacon, even over cheese. I friggin’ love bread.

But I didn’t even have a sourdough starter ready to go. I’m actually reviving one as we speak, as he got a little neglected. (Thomas, if you’re wondering – his name is Thomas, and he’s on the counter, bubbling up again in his bowl. Yay!)

“But Laura,” you say, “why don’t you just go out and buy a loaf of bread?” First of all, this. I ain’t buying what I can make myself, and make better, and I’ve given myself the time on purpose to commit to this practice. Second of all (and not really related to the buying part), my sourdoughs lately have been a bit dense and tough, which I’m attributing to our super dry weather lately and something on my end, which I’m still trying to figure out, scientifically. Thirdly, this turn of events gave me the perfect opportunity to bake *gasp again* something else: one of my absolute favorite breads, challah.

You may remember challah from such foods as French toast and bread pudding, and as that impossibly beautiful braided bread in bakery windows. It’s light, flaky, shiny, and gorgeous, not to mention fun to say out loud: get that glottis going, because you’re pronouncing it like the -ch in “Chanukkah.” (You could also just go with the “ha-llah” pronunciation, but where’s the fun in that?) It’s also fairly quick to put together and, with some practice, simple and fun to braid. Even “ugly” challah loaves look gorgeous when they’re baked, and they’re going to get sliced, anyway.

I mention bread pudding and French toast as applications because challah makes excellent versions of both: it soaks up whatever you put into its flaky layers beautifully, yet retains its lightness somehow after re-baking or frying. But challah is also excellent on its own as toast and sandwich bread – it’s lightly sweet, thanks to a little more honey than standard sandwich bread, and it pairs beautifully with anything from butter to peanut butter to turkey and cheese (yes, I know that’s not kosher. I’m also not kosher, in more ways that one).

Anyway, I made challah, if you didn’t already guess that. Normally, I’ll make three loaves out of one recipe, but we’re hurting for freezer space right now, so I made one big loaf instead. It’s nice to have multiple loaves, since challah is so versatile and takes a bit more effort to form than a regular loaf (emphasis on “a bit.” It’s seriously not that much more difficult if you keep it simple). I have two different recipes and methods that I use, but today, I’ll post the easier of the two.

Enough yabbering. On to the recipe!

Challah 1

This recipe makes one large loaf. For a slightly sweeter bread, use more honey. Don’t worry, though – even the max amount of honey won’t make dessert-like sweetness.

You will need:

  • 5 c all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1-3 tbsp honey (you can also use sugar here)
  • 3 eggs (divided use)
  • 1 1/3 c warm milk or water (not more than 115 degrees F)
  • Optional toppings: poppy seeds, sesame seeds, coarse salt

Directions:

  1. Sift together the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer or another large bowl, combine honey, 2 of the eggs, and the warm milk with a spatula or wooden spoon.
  2. With a stand mixer: Using the hook attachment on the mixer, gradually add the flour-yeast mixture to the egg mixture, and mix until a smooth, slightly sticky ball of dough forms. (You may need to add flour, one tablespoon at a time, to achieve the right consistency.)
  3. Without a stand mixer: Gradually add as much of the flour mixture to the egg mixture as you can with a wooden spoon. Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured counter, and knead in the rest of the flour until a smooth, slightly sticky dough ball forms, adding flour one tablespoon at a time as necessary to achieve this consistency.
  4. Lightly oil a large bowl. Stretch the dough until you get a smooth ball, and place it in the oiled bowl, making sure to turn it so all sides are coated with oil. Cover with a tea towel, and allow to rise in a warm (not hot) place for 1-1/2 hours until doubled.
  5. Punch down the dough, then form a smooth ball with your hands. Divide the dough into three equal portions, cover, and allow to rise on a lightly floured surface, cutting board, or pizza peel (I use a flexible cutting board) for about 10-15 minutes until puffy. At this point, you can prepare a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper, or (my favorite for bread baking) place a pizza stone into the oven.
  6. Roll out the dough balls into ropes about 16 inches in length. Connect the ropes at the top (you may brush water on the ends to help them stick, if you wish) and braid them as you would hair, one over the other. (If you absolutely, positively cannot braid to save your life, you can even split the dough into only two pieces in Step 5 and twist them together here. You do you.) Connect the bottom ends of the braid by brushing with water and sticking them together. Place the dough onto a floured pizza peel or your prepared baking sheet, cover, and allow to rise for 30 minutes.
  7. While the bread rises, preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Beat the egg with 1 tbsp of water for an egg wash. (You can also just use milk, but the crust will not be as shiny.) After the last rise, brush the loaf with the egg wash, and sprinkle with toppings, if using.
  8. Transfer the loaf to your pizza stone, if using, or place the baking sheet with the loaf in the oven. Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes until browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

Challah goes stale pretty quickly, so it’s best eaten within a day or so. If it gets stale, it’s the perfect time to make French toast, bread pudding, or strata – go for it!

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