This is the first post in what is going to be a two-parter. It’s Christmas time, which always puts me in the mood to tackle some kind of traditional, holiday dish. Challah is a braided egg bread that is typically served on Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah. I’m not Jewish, and I don’t have a lot of experience with this bread, but I have always been drawn to how pretty and impressive it looks. While browsing cookbooks, I found a recipe for Challah Bread pudding, and decided that had to be my Christmas project. So, in this post I will be describing my experience making Challah bread and share my recipe. My follow-up post will go on to discuss how I turned my fresh baked bread into eggnog bread pudding.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been trying my hand at baking bread with mixed results. Not bad results exactly- everything has been better than edible- but I haven’t felt like I have a future opening a bakery either. For whatever reason, my less than impressive track record did nothing to deter me from wanting to make my own Challah to go into my holiday bread pudding. If you want to try your hand at bread baking, but feel intimidated by the process, this is a surprisingly good place to start. There is a lot of room for things to go wrong with bread, but the eggs in Challah help make this dough forgiving to mistakes and imperfections. Which I made plenty while I was attempting this. But you would never know to look at the finished product. Look at how nice it turned out.
Seriously, if mine came out, yours will to. You can do it!
For my bread, I used the Sweet Vanilla Challah recipe found in The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger. When it comes to baking, I don’t stray from the given recipe. There is a lot of science involved in baking, and since I came dangerously close to failing Chemistry in high school, I like to stick to the instructions as much as possible. And given my seeming inability to measure things correctly, I probably don’t follow them to the letter as much as I should.
The best part about making bread is, most of the ingredients are probably already in your pantry. And they are all super cheap. If this thing goes south, you can console yourself in the knowledge that you are only out about $5.
To start you need:
1 packet active dry yeast 1 3/4 cups hot water (not boiling)
1/2 cup sugar 4 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt 1/2 cup vegetable oil (olive oil will also do)
6 1/2 to 7 cups unbleached flour 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
You will also need an additional egg yolk, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, and a half a teaspoon of sugar to make a glaze later.
To get this party started, you will need a large bowl. The larger the better. In a pinch, use a pot you normally boil spaghetti in. The size of the bowl will directly correlate with how much flour ends up all over your counter/down the front of your pants.
Mix the yeast, salt, sugar and 2 cups of flour. Add the hot water, eggs, oil, and vanilla. If you have a giant electric mixer, life will probably be a lot easier. I, however, don’t own a mixer 1) because my counter space is limited and mixers are huge, and 2) because I like to tell myself mixing batter by hand is equivalent to a solid strength training workout. So I beat mine by hand with a whisk until smooth. The recipe says this should take about 3 minutes, but if you also hate lifting weights and need to take breaks, it may take a little bit longer. Before you proceed to the next step, it should look like thin, smooth, pancake batter.
Now start gradually adding the rest of your flour 1/2 a cup at a time. If you are doing this by hand, you might even want to add it in smaller quantities. Each time you add more flour, mix it into the rest of the mixture until the dough has absorbed it all, then add more. Your mixture will transform from something you can mix with a spoon, into a stiff dough.
Once all of your flour is mixed in, and your dough doesn’t feel “wet” anymore, turn it out onto a lightly floured flat surface. I use a big, plastic cutting board. “Knead” your dough for 3-4 minutes.
When a recipe tells you to knead something, I think they assume the reader knows what that actually means. The reader probably assumes they do too; until they get to that part, and think “crap, am I doing this right? Do I give the bread a massage?” It wasn’t until I read specific instructions for kneading in a different cookbook that I realized, I probably didn’t know how to knead dough. So my kneading method is this: flatten your dough out a little bit. Grab the side of the dough that is directly across from your body, and fold it into the middle of the dough. Press down with the heel of your hand. Rotate your dough 90 degrees, and repeat this process over and over. The dough will form a firm and springy ball.
Now lightly oil up the ball, place it in a large container, and cover with a lid. The bread should double in size in 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
“Should” being the key word. Mine didn’t actually rise so much as expand side ways, sort of like The Blob. Something clearly went wrong, as the recipe instructed me to “gently deflate” my dough, and my dough was most definitely not “flated.” I pressed on anyway.
The next part is where things started to get really hairy. First, you will have enough dough for two loaves of bread. Divide your dough into two parts, and freeze one ball for later. Getting rid of half the dough before you proceed will help you from getting confused.
Grease a baking sheet. You are going to be placing all of your dough strips onto the sheet.
I decided I wanted to make a four braid Challah. The recipe instructed me to “roll each portion out into a smooth, thick strip, 30 inches long.” Uh….30 inches is more than 2 feet long. My baking sheet isn’t that long, so I made my strips about the length of my pan. My strip rolling ability left a lot to be desired. The first strip I rolled was way to thick, and looked more like a bread stick then a rope. My second strip was a little bit better. I ended up ripping the first strip into two, and attempting to roll out two thinner ropes.
The important thing is, do not get frustrated. Your bread ropes can be super ugly and YOUR BREAD WILL STILL TURN OUT. Mine did, and I had four bread ropes that were all different thicknesses and lengths. I would get one rope rolled out, and by the time I had finished the next one, the first strip had begun to pull in towards the middle, and shrink in size. The middle of my ropes were much thicker than the ends, which I kept desperately tugging on in an attempt to gain length.
Eventually I accepted that I wasn’t going to have perfectly uniform ropes, and I just decided to start braiding. However, I’ve never been able to make fancy hair braids, let alone bread braids, and I started making a four way bread braid without actually knowing what I was doing. So I started weaving my ropes together, and then promptly forgot my own pattern. In the end, I just sort of coiled my ropes together at random and then mashed and tucked the ends together on both sides.
It wasn’t pretty. But I kept going. I covered my awkwardly coiled bread braid with plastic wrap and let it “rise” for 40 more minutes. Did it double in volume the way it was supposed to? Um…not really. Maybe it rose a little bit, but things definitely weren’t turning out the way the Bread Bible intended them to.
By now it was 10:30 on Christmas eve, and I did not spend all of this time working on Challah bread not to see the project through. So I preheated my oven to 350 degrees, while beating the ingredients together for the egg glaze. I brushed a thick layer of beaten egg onto my dough, and stuck it in the hot oven for 45 minutes.
And when it came out of the oven….it looked good! The bread was a nice golden brown, and I could knock on the crust and hear a deep hollow sound. Even the bottom didn’t burn the way some of my other loaves have. (Some of the glaze did drip onto the pan and burn- next time I would wipe up any drips before baking). Given the amount of issues I had with the recipe….it looked like a fancy loaf of bread! You can tell a little in the picture that my bread ropes were uneven and different widths, but it didn’t detract from the texture or the taste of the final product.
And that is why I recommend this loaf to newbie bread bakers. You can totally mess up parts of the recipe, and your bread will come out looking impressive and tasty anyways. The crust has a nice hard exterior, and inside it will be soft and chewy. Make one loaf to eat, and use the other for bread pudding!
As nice as my loaf looked, it didn’t get the chance to be admired. My next post will discuss how to take that beautiful loaf and make it into holiday morning bread pudding.