I thought these loaves looked so picturesque in my new bread book. Challah bread is something I see in Whole Foods but have never actually picked up a loaf. In my Artisan Breads Every Day cookbook, Peter Reinhart uses this bread as his cover photo.
Making this bread was fun and very gratifying. I haven't tried "braiding" bread before and I was surprised that it wasn't that difficult. What did surprise me was how HUGE the loaves became while "proofing" and how big they were once baked. The recipe makes 2 loaves and lasted us more than a week.
I would definitely recommend this bread for people like me who are learning how to bake breads. The process is easy, braiding is fun, and the final loaves are so wonderfully pretty!
2 1/4 c (18oz/510g) lukewarm water (about 95F or 35C)
1 1/2 Tbsp. (.5 oz/14g) instant yeast
8 to 10 egg yolks (6 oz/170 g), depending on weight
5 Tbsp. (2.5 oz/71 g) vegetable oil
6 Tbsp (3 oz/85 g) sugar, or 4 1/2 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp (.75 oz/21 g) vanilla extract (optional)
7 1/2 c (34 oz/ 964g) unbleached bread flour
2 1/2 tsp (.66 oz/19 g) salt, or 4 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 egg white or whole egg, for egg wash
2 Tbsp water, for egg wash
2 Tbsp poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or a combination, for garnish (optional)
Combine the water and yeast in a mixing bowl and stir with a whisk to dissolve. Add the egg yolks, oil sugar, and vanilla and whisk lightly to break up the egg yolks, then add the flour and salt. If using a mixer, use the paddle attachment and mix on the lowest speed for 2 minutes. If mixing by hand, use a large spoon and stir for about 2 minutes. The dough should be coarse and shaggy. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium-low speed, or continue to mix by hand using a large, wet spoon, for 4 minutes. Use a bowl scraper to transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, then dust the top of the dough with flour. Lightly kneed for 1 to 2 minutes, adding more flour as needed to prevent sticking (I definitely had to do this). The dough should be soft, supple, and tacky but not sticky. Form the dough into a ball, place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
Immediately refrigerate the dough overnight or for up to 4 days (I didn't have time to refrigerate overnight. I took the dough out after 5 hours and it baked just fine).
When ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours and 10 minutes before you plan to bake. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and cut it into desired number of pieces. (I used the 3-braid option). Make sure all of the pieces are the same weight (I eye-balled it.) Flatten each piece with your hand, then roll the pieces into a cigar or torpedo shape. After doing this with each piece, return to the first one and roll it out into a rope 10 to 14 inches long. Line up the 3 long pieces of dough next to each other (put some space inbetween them). Take the outer right braid and cross it over the middle strand. Then, take the outer left braid and cross it over the middle strand. It take doing and re-doing the first overlaps a few times but it isn't hard to get the hang of it. Pinch the braids at the tops and bottoms and fold them under so they look pretty and tucked underneath.
Make an egg wash by combining the egg white (or a whole egg) and the 2 tablespoons of water and whisking briskly until thoroughly combined. Brush the entire visible surface of the loaves (don't get it in the creases because it doesn't show off the braiding as well once baked if it is too browned) and then refrigerate any remaining egg wash. Let the loaves rise, uncovered, at room temperature for about 1 hour; they won't rise very much during this time. Brush with the egg wash again, then sprinkle on the optional seeds. Let the loaves rise at room temperature for about 1 hour more, or until increased to about 1 1/2 times their original size (Note! They were huge. I had them side by side. I had to get a separate baking tray for the second loaf because they were rising into each other and onto the counter top.)
About 15 min. before baking, preheat the oven to 350F (177C), or 300F (149C) for a convection oven.
Bake for about 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 min. until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temperature is about 190 F (88C). The crust of the loaf will seem hard when it first comes out of the oven, but it will soften as it cools.