In the world of awesome electronics—have you seen the iPad?!—and 24-hour supermarkets, simple wonders have been lost to the ever-expanding reach of modernity and convenience. And I think that is a little sad. Yes, Amazon's Kindle is cool and playing with the iPad might make you feel like the Jean Luc Picard, but can it replace the feeling of curling up with a real book or magazine on a rainy day, feeling the grain of the pages with your fingers? For this writer, it doesn't.
I don’t consider myself a baker. My cakes are usually messy, yet tasty disasters. And I have an allergy to too much heavy cream. To my own credit, I have made pretty good soft pretzels, bagels and cinnamon rolls. So I’m not a complete novice and I'm baking more than ever. Whenever I use yeast, I am always quietly awed and exubertantly giddy when the dough rises. It is a little majesty, like the sparkle of fresh snow, that is worth the work and the patience baking requires. It seems impossible that a little packet of dry powder are actually microorganisms doing incredible things to flour and eggs and water. Tell me that's not cooler than sea monkeys?!
Challah is one of those fantastic chance buys that changed my expectations of bread. I was looking for brioche—a fancy bread that the celebrity chefs covet for french toasts and bread puddings. My local grocery store didn’t have brioche, but they had challah. I was taken by the glossy finish, festive braid and the slightly sweet taste. I buy it almost exclusively now.
So it was only a matter of time before I started looking at recipes. I spent a day blending, kneading and braiding, and I fell in love with breadmaking in the process. There is something cathartic about working the dough and seeing it take shape. It’s also great cardio. I may have jumped for joy when the loaves came out of the oven and were actually bread-like, hearty but fluffy and totally Challah-esque.
If you’re at home on a rainy day and happen to have a bucket of flour and a packet of dry yeast, let those little buggers free and behold a little culinary magic.
By Joan Calloway
Makes 2 Large Loaves
2 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water. I used a meat thermometer to test the temperature of the water. Beat in honey, oil, 2 eggs, and salt in a strong mixer with a large bowl. Add the flour one cup at a time, beating after each addition. By the eighth cup, the mixer—my Kitchen-Aid—could barely incorporate the last cup of flour. Remove it from the bowl and place on immaculate, floured countertop and knead to incorporate.
Knead until smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed, about 5 to 8 minutes. If the dough tears or seems dry, dribble a bit of warm water over it with your fingers and continue to knead. Cover with a damp clean cloth and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until dough has doubled in bulk.
Punch down the risen dough and turn out onto floured board. Divide in half (my halves were about 1 lbs, 12 oz. Yes, I measured). Knead each half for five minutes or so, adding flour as needed to keep from getting sticky. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long snake about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Pinch the ends of the three snakes together firmly and braid from middle.
Either leave as braid or form into a round braided loaf by bringing ends together, curving braid into a circle, pinch ends together. Grease two baking trays with shortening and place finished braid or round on each. Cover with towel and let rise about one hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
Beat the remaining egg and brush a generous amount over each braid.
Bake at 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) for about 40 minutes. (NOTE: I convect baked bread, and my loaves were done in 25 minutes). Bread should have a nice hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
Cool on a rack for at least one hour before slicing.
Chef’s Note: This bread has no preservatives and will spoil faster than regular bread. It also produces two gigantic loaves. I suggest halving the recipe or giving the extra loaf to co-workers or your boss. You might get those days off you wanted.
Challah in Pictures:
Before its first rise.
Braiding is easy.
Proofed and polished.
Ready for its close-up.