Sunday, February 3, 2008


Some cooks approach even simple bread
with fear and trembling, despair and dread.
Indeed, such fear's surprisingly widespread --

yet utterly unjustified;
for of all baking, bread provides
the most reward for least demand -- so I'd

argue, anyway. This recipe
is near-effortless, dear addressee:
it comes with the guarantee

of years of Friday morning kneads,
and nine times out of ten succeeds
no matter how the baker proceeds.

I learnt it ultimately from George Greenstein,
but my mother made it part of my routine.

Challah (for novices and experts, but addressed to the novices).

1 cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups flour, plus a little more for dusting the kneading surface and your hands
2 teaspoons salt
1 egg and 1 teaspoon water, for egg wash
cornmeal for dusting the baking sheet
(optional) sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or anything else you like for topping the bread

Unusual materials:
8-inch springform pan (only if you plan to make a Rabbi's challah)
pastry brush (for applying the egg wash)

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir to dissolve. (The water should be about 110 degreed Fahrenheit -- warm enough to help your rise, but not hot enough to kill the yeast.) Add egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, flour, and salt; stir until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Lightly flour a large, clean, smooth working surface (if you don't have marble or a silicone mat, use a large cutting board, very smooth table mat, or unusually clean kitchen counter) and turn the dough out onto it. If the dough is too soft and sticky to work with, add more flour 1/4 cup at a time, but this should be a last resort -- 4 cups is plenty, and more will start to make the bread too tough. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well-developed -- perhaps ten minutes if it's your first time kneading and you haven't got the hang of it, but usually no more than three or four. You can tell you're done if the dough springs back when you poke it and the indent disappears.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, turn to coat, and cover until the dough is tripled in volume, about 2 1/2 hours. (But you don't have to take my word for it. Time of rising will vary -- by a LOT -- from kitchen to kitchen and from occasion to occasion, so don't rely on the clock. And of course it'll be much shorter if you're using Rapid-Rise yeast, which there's no special reason not to do as it doesn't make any discernible difference in the final product that I can tell.) This is a fully aged, or ready, dough.

Punch down the dough, cut it in half, cover it (tight covering is great but it'll do fine even loosely covered), and let it rise for 15 more minutes. Punch it down again. Now it's time for braiding!

Some people (e.g., my mom) can do these elaborate beautiful braids with six-parts that look really impressive. If you can do that, great. But I can't, and if this is your first time making challah you probably won't want to try. You might as well just go with one of the classic shapes for challah: a traditional three-strand braid, a circle (for Rosh HaShanah especially), or a Rabbi's challah.

To shape a three-strand braided challah:
Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl and roll it into a long rope. Tear the rope in three as evenly as possible, then join the three little ropes at one end. Move one of the extreme ropes into the center; then the other; then the other, etc., until there's just enough left of each rope to join them together at the other end. Then do that. Place the braided challah on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet.

Another option is to place the braided challah into a cornmeal-dusted loaf tin -- it should fit in one of various standard sizes -- and place the tin on the baking sheet. The ultimate size and shape of your challah is much more under your control if you take this path, but your challah will look squarish, and it may be difficult to remove it from the pan.

To shape a circle challah:
Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl and roll it into a long rope. Wind the rope around from the center outwards in a spiral. Place the challah on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet.

To shape a Rabbi's challah:
Dust a springform pan eight inches in diameter with cornmeal. Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl. Tear off a hunk about a third of the size of the whole and place it in the middle of the springform pan. Tear off smaller hunks and surround the central hunk of dough with them. Place the pan on a baking sheet.

Of course, there are two lumps, and the recipe makes two challahs, but both should fit on one baking sheet. I tend to braid one and make another as a Rabbi's challah. If you don't want two challahs, you can refrigerate or freeze the dough, but not for very long, so it makes more sense to make both and just freeze a part of the finished product.

Whew. Now beat the last egg with the teaspoon of water to make the egg wash. Brush the breads with the egg wash, taking care to cover them completely and not to let excess egg wash drip into their crevices.

Place the challahs in a warm, draft-free area (a pre-warmed oven or turned-off top oven with a bottom oven on is ideal, and the dough will rise much faster in such circumstances), cover them with a clean dishtowel or anything that will cover them completely without getting stuck, and allow them to rise until doubled in size -- maybe 45 minutes to an hour. At some point during this second rising, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. When they're through rising, brush the challahs with egg wash a second time, then apply sesame or poppy seeds if using.

Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for about 35 minutes. The bread is done when it has a rich mahogany color (it won't have this if you didn't use egg wash) and sounds hollow when you tap it lightly. If there's a white line visible between the cracks, put the bread back in for a few more minutes. Let the bread cool on a wire rack before cutting.


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