I confess that sometimes I forget I have a blog, and by the time I remember, I’ve made something nice, and it’s already done, and there are no in-progress photos. So I skip it as a subject for the blog.
This time, though, is different. Everyone should know how to make a good, impressive—and very easy—bread for the holiday table. Something simpler and less expensive than, say, a great stollen or panettone (which, shockingly, some people don’t like). So even though I forgot to take photos, it’s that time of year and you may need or want this recipe for challah. I’ll do my best at directions for the braiding. (I also made another bread today, but had already frozen it and only had a half-eaten slice with butter on it to photograph . . . too questionable even by my low standards for what constitutes food worth looking at.)
Why all the breads? Aside from the fact that I love bread, of course? My department is having a holiday pot luck lunch this week, and my contribution is a bread basket. There will be a wonderful New England 100% whole wheat brown bread with raisins and nuts—the one already in the freezer; a huge fougasse in the shape of a Christmas tree; my buttermilk dinner rolls to satisfy the Southerners; some cornmeal crackers; a few loaves of French bread made with poolish and a little whole wheat; and this challah. I have also been pressed to bring one of last year’s contributions again, the ever-versatile and vibrant apricot chutney.
Challah is a traditional Jewish bread served at holidays in various shapes, most notably braided, but also wound into a smart turban or little knotted rolls. My father used to call it Jewish egg bread when I was little, and that about describes it. It is eggy, but contains less egg, butter, and sugar than many enriched doughs, giving it a finer texture and making it suitable for sandwiches, French toast, and eating with butter. Unlike some of its more decorated cousins, it falls squarely into the bread rather than the dessert category. This is, I think, why most people like it. While I am a totally egalitarian bread eater, welcoming all comers, I am very fond of challah. It makes a great ham sandwich. Ironic, I know.
One of the easiest ways to impress your boyfriend’s mother, or make her fear you will replace her. Freeze the whites for later use. Makes 1 huge loaf.
1 package dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
¼ cup warm water
4 ½ cups bread flour, more if needed
2 tea salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup lukewarm water
1 large egg yolk
Sprinkle the sugar and yeast into the ¼ cup water, stir, and set aside for a few minutes. Butter a half-sheet pan.
Beat the eggs and 1 egg yolk with the butter. Sift the flour and salt into the yeast mixture. Add the egg-butter mixture and the cup of water. Mix until blended and turn out onto a floured board. Knead until smooth, incorporating a little more flour if needed, about 6 or 7 minutes.
Place into a large greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap to rise until double, about an hour. Punch down and let rise again, about another hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Divide the dough into two pieces, one about 1/3 of the dough, one about 2/3. Set the smaller piece aside, covered. Pat the larger piece out to about 12 inches and cut it into thirds lengthwise, and roll the pieces into ropes with slightly tapered ends. Place them parallel to each other, an inch or so apart, then join them at the top, tucking under the ends. Braid, crossing from left over the center, then right over the left (now in the center) and so on, always crossing alternate sides over the piece that lands in the center. Pull the ends together at the bottom and tuck under. You can do the braiding on the counter and transfer it to the buttered baking sheet, or do it directly on the sheet.
Repeat the braiding procedure with the smaller piece. Make a slight indentation down the length of the braid on the sheet, and brush with water. Place the smaller braid firmly on top, integrating the ends. Mix the final egg yolk with a few drops of water; brush the bread gently all over and sprinkle lightly with poppy seeds. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 45-50 minutes, until it is a lovely mahogany color and is firm at the intersections of the braids. Remove to a rack to cool.