I've been baking challah for years and years. It may have even been the first bread I learned to bake, but I can't really remember since it's been so long. It's a great first bread to bake, in any case, because the eggs and the oil make the dough easy to work with, and the braided loaf always looks very impressive. Even though these days I'm more likely to make no-knead bread or buy a loaf from the excellent Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, I still like to make challah every once in awhile.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is often such a time. Though I am completely and utterly unobservant in terms of any kind of formal religion, I do find myself occasionally partaking in Jewish food traditions (including being incredibly picky about bagels). It also so happened that this year Rosh Hashana was early and just a few days before my birthday. So, it seemed like baking a loaf of round challah to welcome the Jewish new year and my new year both was the right thing to do.
I didn't even have to ponder recipe possibilities--I returned to my standby of many, many years, Racheli's Deluxe Challah from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu. It's not that I haven't tried other challah recipes, but I always find myself returning to Racheli's challah. This time, however, I fiddled a bit. One of the recipes I'd tried a few years ago was the challah from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which is a fabulous book. Several of my favorite breads are in here, but I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by the challah. It was richer than Racheli's challah but not any better. Where Peter Reinhart is helpful, though, is that he writes his recipes for instant yeast, which is the kind of yeast that you can mix right in with the flour without proofing. I've been a convert to this method for some years and wanted to use it for the challah.
The other thing about the Katzen recipe is that it makes two "substantial" loaves. And when Mollie Katzen says substantial, she's not kidding. Once, in the year or two after college, I got a letter from my friend Ann, who'd been my cooking partner when we lived in a coop our senior year at Amherst. I'd taught her to bake challah, and this may have been the first time she'd made it on her own. In any case, she sent a note to say that she'd made a challah "as big as a skateboard." I laughed, but I wasn't, actually, surprised.
So, I decided to use Racheli's challah as my base recipe, but reduce the recipe to make one big loaf rather than two and adjust it for instant yeast. All easily done. What was less easily done was figuring out how to make a round and braided loaf of challah, as opposed to just a round or braided one. I'd turned a regular braid into a round one, and I'd made a round one without braids, but I'd never done round and braided at the same time. For instructions, I turned to this website, which has detailed instructions and clear photos. (Given my above-mentioned state of non-religiosity, I do appreciate the irony of using the Chabad website, which I would have absolutely no reason to look at otherwise, for instructions. Still, it does the trick, in this case, and that's what matters.) Even with the clear pictures, though, I'll admit I had to unbraid it approximately 17 times before I had the AHA moment and figured out what to do. Still, what I ended up with was gorgeous. I documented my efforts, but I'd advise looking at the other website's photos for actual instructions.
Somehow, though, the one substantial loaf I made vanished mysteriously after just a few days, and I wondered if I should have stuck to the original recipe in the first place. In any case, whatever shape you make it, this is delicious challah. Delicious dipped in honey for the new year or slathered with peanut butter and homemade peach jam (which I just happened to have a supply of) with a cup of tea in the morning or with cheese on top and dipped into tomato soup at lunchtime. It's also delicious stale, as French toast. All in all, a challah for all seasons. And a belated happy new year to all.
p.s. It disappeared so quickly that by the time I realized that I wanted to take a bread and jam photo, given the title of this post, it was all gone.
p.p.s. I realize the two middle photos look similar. But after you follow the instructions (17 times until they make sense, or just once) and finally have your round braided loaf and it looks like the loaf on the left, you have to flip it over, and then it looks more properly braided, as in the one on the right.
Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu, with help from Peter Reinhart
4- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour (Challah traditionally uses all white flour, but I slipped in a cup of white whole wheat instead of 1 cup of all-purpose flour.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs (keep one aside for the egg wash at the end)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
approx. 1 1/4 cup water
1 cup raisins (optional)
poppy and/or sesame seeds for sprinkling on top
In large bowl (or bowl of standing mixer), combine 4 cups flour, yeast, salt and sugar. In separate bowl, lightly whisk together eggs, vegetable oil and water. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.
If you have a standing mixer, you can start with the paddle and move to the dough hook once the liquids have been incorporated. Knead with dough hook for 5-8 minutes, adding small amounts of flour if the dough is still sticky. If you're making it without a mixer, stir in the bowl until the dough is too stiff and then turn out onto a floured board and knead for 5-10 minutes until dough is smooth and not sticky.
Oil a clean bowl and the top of the dough. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with clean tea towel and place in a warm and draft free place to rise until doubled , 1.5-2 hours.
Punch down the dough, return to the floured surface and divide into four sections. Let rest for 5 minutes. Knead each quarter for several minutes and then roll into a long rope, about 1.5 inches in diameter. Make the ropes as long as you can manage, at least 12 inches each.
Follow the instructions on this page for turning those 4 ropes of dough into a gorgeous round braided loaf. I did the braiding on a piece of parchment paper, which makes the transfer to a baking sheet easy.
Place the loaf, on its piece of parchment paper (or a Silpat) on a baking sheet. Cover with the tea towel, return to a warm spot and allow it to rise for about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350. When the dough is ready to go into the oven, beat the second egg and brush it over your loaves. Sprinkle with poppy and/or sesame seeds, and bake for 35-45 minutes. The bread will give off a hollow sound when thumped the bottom, when it is done and look gorgeously brown. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack. Enjoy.