Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Challah

Yesterday, while reading my usual run of Epicurious food blogs (the Epi-logs), I came across one that recommended three different recipe search sites, one of which was Project Foodie. I tested it out by searching for Challah recipes since I have been wanting to try making my own bread. I quickly found a recipe that satisfied me, and I wasted no time in trying it out.

Baking bread from scratch is so satisfying. There is something very comforting about the whole process of bringing together all the ingredients, then using your hands to knead and shape and punch the dough. I also enjoy the scent of the yeast as the dough rises, and, of course, the heavenly aroma of bread baking in a hot oven.

Challah is a traditional Jewish egg bread, usually consisting of three or six strands of dough braided together before baking. The finished product looks absolutely beautiful. I braided my loaf of challah with three strands: the six-strand braid looks a little complex to me (though I do want to try it some time).

I adapted the recipe I found on ProjectFoodie.com to make one loaf of challah instead of two, since I don't actually eat that much bread. I think next time I'll go ahead and make two loaves, and give the extra away as a gift: what could be a lovelier gift than a hand-crafted loaf of fresh bread?

Adapted from a recipe from "Secrets of a Jewish Baker" by George Greenstein

1/2 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast (3/4 TBSP)
1/2 egg, lightly beaten (use other half to brush loaf before baking)
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1/8 cup canola oil
1/8 cup plus 3/4 tsp sugar
2 to 2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
Canola oil, for coating bowl
Cornmeal, for dusting baking pan

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and allow to soften for about a minute or two. Add the 1/2 egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, 2 cups of the flour, and the salt. Stir until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, adding more flour, a little bit at a time if the dough is sticky or very soft. The dough should be firm. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well developed (5 to 10 minutes). When you push down, the dough should feel firm and push back.

Transfer to an oiled bowl. Turn to coat, and let rise, covered with a towel or plastic wrap, until tripled in volume (30 to 40 minutes). Punch down the dough (using your fist), then fold the outside edges into the center. Cover and allow to rise for 15 more minutes.

Punch down the dough again and, on a very lightly floured work surface, use your palms to roll the dough into a rope about 12 inches long. Cut it into 3 equal pieces, then roll them out to 8 or 9 inches each. Braid the three ropes by pressing the ends together, then braiding as you would hair. Tuck the ends under after you braid.

Transfer the challah to a cornmeal-dusted baking pan. Place in a warm, draft-free area, preferably enclosed, and allow the braided loaf to rise until doubled in size (about 20-30 minutes). You can preheat the oven to 350˚F at this point.

Before baking, brush the eggwash over the loaf. Be careful not to allow the excess egg to collect in the crevices of the braided dough. Do two egg washes, allowing the first coat to dry for a couple of minutes before brushing on the second coat.

Bake about 35 minutes on the middle shelf of the oven until the loaf has a rich mahogany color. When tapped lightly, the loaf should emit a hollow sound on the bottom with your fingertips.

Allow to cool before attempting to slice it!