Monday, January 17, 2011

Challah Bread!!!

Challah ("Hall-uh"). This bread is so near and dear to my heart; We have quite the history. Here's a little background...
During college, my roommate, Serena, minored in religious studies. One of her course requirements was to attend services of different religions. During her visit to a jewish temple in town, she heard their announcement for a cooking class available to the Jewish women to come learn how to make traditional foods. Serena came home and asked us all if we wanted to go. Just $4 and a whole lotta' fun! Four of us girls joined the women at the temple that morning to learn how to make their delicious challah bread! They were quite surprised to meet 4 young Christian college girls showing up for their Jewish cooking class, but we hit it off and had great conversations with them in their kitchen that morning. It was a BLAST- in fact, we all had so much fun, that the women decided to go to their temple's office and make it an official club; They invited us to return for future cooking classes, and we didn't hesitate! We learned tons of fun traditional Jewish foods... but Challah bread was our favorite, and the one that I just can't seem to stop baking! That was $4 that changed my life :)

(Here is an old picture of us from that morning baking challah with the women in their temple kitchen)

Here is your ingredient list:
1 cup WARM water
2 packets of dry yeast (or 4 1/2 tsp yeast)
4 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup honey (or sugar if you don't have honey, but I like to use honey)
1 1/2 tsp salt
5-7 cups flour
plus, 1 extra egg and a dab of honey to brush on top of the bread before it bakes

Before you start anything else, preheat the oven to 100 degrees F (this will create a warm environment in which the dough can rise later). Now, start by proofing your yeast. To do this, heat one cup of water (I use a glass measuring cup so I can put it in the microwave for about 25 seconds or so until it's pretty warm). Yeast is a living organism and we are trying to activate it and allow it to grow, because this is what is going to make our dough rise later. This type of yeast grows best at temperatures around 100 degrees F. So, when you heat up your water, make sure it feels like a jacuzzi. If it is too hot, then it will kill the yeast and your bread will not rise. So don't be afraid to stick your finger in the water to make sure it's just like a warm jacuzzi, and not like a scorching cup of tea. Once you've heated your water to an optimal temperature, you need to give the yeast a source of nutrition to grow; Just sprinkle in a little sugar or honey and dissolve it into the hot water. Now you have a yeast friendly environment, and you can dissolve your active dry yeast into the cup. Let it rise about 5 to 10 minutes until it bubbles and roughly doubles in volume- like this: 

During the time that the yeast is rising, mix the next few ingredients in a large bowl (I like to use a large metal bowl because I like the way it warms later and encourages the dough to rise). Start with beating the 4 eggs. Then add the 1/2 cup of oil, then the 1/2 cup honey. It is important to do it in that order because the oil coats the measuring cup so that the honey will pour right out and not stick to all the sides of the measuring cup. See how smoothly is releases from the measuring cup: 

Then add in the 1 1/2 tsp salt, and mix everything really well. Then add in the proofed yeast and give it another good stir. 

The mixture should eventually look like this:

Now, start adding in the flour. I usually dump in about 4 cups to start with and mix it in well with my fork. Then, I add more flour in 1/2 cup increments as necessary until I end up with the consistency I like (usually about 5 to 5 1/2 cups). Only add small increments at a time because you don't want to add too much flour- too much flour leads to a dry, not tasty bread... trust me. By the way, I only use one fork to do all of this. It is so simple, all you need is a bowl and a fork.  It should end up like a soft formable playdough, but much stickier. Like this: 

Now, TURN OFF THE OVEN, cover the dough bowl in plastic wrap, and let it rise in the warm, but OFF, oven. Let it rise looooong and slow. I usually let mine rise about 3 hours or more. The women in the Jewish temple said the longer the better, and that they would make their dough in the morning and let it rise all day and cook it when they got home from work. I tried this... I don't recommend it. Two things happened to me: 1) it rose over the top of my bowl and made a mess of my oven, and 2) the yeast multiplied too much and it ended up tasty way too yeasty. I think 5ish hours is my limit. 
Covered, and into the warm, OFF oven:
3 hours later: 

Now dump in out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface (I love 2 tools here: 1)my nonstick silicone baking mat that is WAY too big to fit in any oven, so it makes a great large nonstick work surface that always use when I work with any dough, and 2) a dough scraper- This is another best friend every time I'm working with dough. It helps get the sticky dough out of the bowl cleanly and also helps to cut and divide dough when you're working with it). 
Again, be careful not to work in too much flour here; Keep it moist and tacky if possible. Divide your dough into two equal pieces and then gently squeeze those into long 'ropes'. Now, cross your ropes to make a plus sign (+) (because I don't have a large island or counter top workspace, I had to cross mine a little crooked, like an (x) instead of a (+) so that it could fit on my small counter top. This is fine too as long as you can designate and visualize a 'top', 'bottom', 'left', and 'right' because this is how you need to view it in order to braid it. 
Braiding code: 'right' across, 'left' across, 'bottom' up, 'top' down, and so on...
(plus sign):
('Right' arm across):
 ('Left' arm across):
 ('Bottom' arm goes up):
 ('Top' arm goes down):
 And so on, until it starts to look like a braid!!!:
And eventually you get to the end and you just tuck loose ends under so that it looks the same as the other end: 

Now I transfer this to a silpat (or parchment) lined baking sheet, cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and let it rise again in the warm, OFF oven for about 30 minutes. This is important, because we just handled the dough quite a bit and worked out some of the nice little airbubbles in the dough that make it so nice and fluffy. Letting the dough rise again here, allows it to regain a little of the volume and fluff. So, back in the oven!

After just about 30 minutes, it should look like it has puffed up again nicely. Take the bread out of the oven and throw away the plastic wrap. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Now you are going to whip together 1 egg and a tablespoon of honey. Then paint it gently onto the bread. After the bread is cooked, this egg wash gives the loaf a beautiful glossy appearance, a subtle sweetness, and little protection from drying out.

Cook it for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees F. It should be golden brown, and have a hollow thump to it if you flick it with the back of your finger. 

 Look at how soft and sweet it is inside!!!! Enjoy it while it's warm with butter, or honey, or both! mmmm....

Because these are such LARGE loafs of bread, I found that a dry cleaning bag, tied off at each end like a piece of candy, works very well for keeping this bread fresh. 

**Some fun additions: 
- Sprinkle poppy seeds or sesame seeds on top of the egg wash before the bread goes into the oven
- Mix raisins into the dough when you add in the flour
- Add 2 Tablespoons of brandy into the egg, oil, honey mix
-Challah bread easily transforms into the BEST french toast... (recipe post to follow:)

**Nutrition noteworthy: If you choose to use honey, this bread has NO white refined sugar :) 
(But this does not mean it is sugar free. Honey provides natural sugars, which may mean it's free from white refined sugars, but it is still sugar nonetheless).

1 comment:

  1. I've tried a couple of these recipes, and they are delicious! Can't wait to try the Challah Bread French Toast. It looks fantastic!