Challah bread always brings back memories of college for me. I was involved with a volunteer group that spent time mentoring “at risk” elementary school kids and helping them understand the importance of higher education. Each week we took the kids to various places across campus doing fun and educational activities. One of the most popular activities with the kids was the campus Hillel House – the Jewish student center. It was known amongst the little buddies as “the bread place!” because every year we got to braid and bake our own loaves of challah. (Any activity involving food was bound to become a favorite.) It was always a wonderfully fun time and delicious as well.
There are many different ways to braid challah, and not being Jewish myself, I do not claim to know what is traditional or correct. Some are very complicated with many strands involved. At the Hillel House we did a four-stranded braid with the kiddos. This recipe uses one large three-stranded braid, which is then topped with another smaller three-stranded braid. The whole thing bakes together for a very impressive appearance without being complicated at all. The result is a delicious, tender loaf of sturdy bread that can be used for many things. It is great for eating plain, as toast, French toast, etc. This loaf went a long way in our house. I had a few pieces of toast, made a very special breakfast that I’ll be sharing tomorrow, and used the rest for bread crumbs. I’ll definitely make it again soon to give it a try as French toast since I didn’t attempt that this time around. Can’t wait!
3-3¼ cups (15-16¼ oz.) all-purpose flour
2¼ tsp. instant yeast
¼ cup sugar
1¼ tsp. salt
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk (white reserved for egg wash)
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
½ cup water, at room temperature
For the egg wash:
1 large egg white
1 tbsp. water
1 tsp. poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the eggs, egg yolk, melted butter, and ½ cup of the water. Stir to combine. Mix in the flour, yeast, sugar and salt just until the dough comes together. Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed for about 5 minutes until the dough forms a ball and is tacky but not sticky (adding the remaining ¼ cup of flour gradually if needed.)
In a small bowl, whisk together the reserved egg white for the egg wash with the water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled large bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½-2 hours. Gently press down the dough to deflate it, re-cover, and let rise again until doubled in size, about 40-60 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide into two pieces, with one roughly half the size of the other (9 and 18 oz. by weight.) Divide the large piece into three equal pieces and roll each into a 16-inch long rope. Line all three pieces up alongside each other and pinch the pieces together at one end. From the closed end, braid the pieces together and pinch together at the opposite end. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Divide the remaining smaller piece of dough into three equal pieces and roll each into a 16-inch long rope. Line them up and braid as before, pinching the ends together. Brush some of the egg wash onto the top of the larger braid, and then set the smaller braid on top. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes, or until the loaf has puffed up and increased in size by about a third.
With an oven rack in lower-middle position, preheat the oven to 375˚ F. Brush the loaf with the remaining egg wash and sprinkle lightly with poppy or sesame seeds (if using). Bake the loaf for 30-40 minutes, or until it is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the side of the loaf reads 190˚ F. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.
Source: adapted from Baking Illustrated