My mother is a fabulous cook.
In fact, most everyone who has had the pleasure of tasting my mother's cooking considers her culinary royalty (it's true Mom, so if you're reading this, stop blushing). Looking back on my childhood, it's full of all sorts of treats...perfectly layered lasagnas, chicken breasts juicy and flavorful, and her amazing molasses spice cookies (someday I'll share that recipe...maybe). But the one category that is strangely missing is bread.
Now, I'm not saying that she couldn't bake bread (I'm not one to mess with the culinary gods). I'm merely noting that she...didn't. Sure there was the occasional bread-machine loaf, or a sweet, dessert type bread (mmm...banana bread), but as far as yeasty, hand-kneaded goodness, well, we left that to the store.
Which is why I have decided it is my job to take up the fight in that department. If I am being perfectly honest, I'll admit that there's probably a disproportionately large part of me that wants to eclipse my mom's culinary prowess in some department (any department, really), and bread seems like an easy target. Still, even that wouldn't have made me bake 3 (yes 3) different loaves of bread in the span of a week and a half.
The truth is, making bread is fun. There's just something to comforting and magical about the process...kneading the dough, watching it rise, shaping the loaves...oh, and then there's that SMELL...don't get me started on the smell.
For my second foray into the world of bread (the first was hamburger buns, which I'm still fiddling with), I decided to try my hand at challah, a traditional Jewish egg bread. Now, I am not Jewish, but nonetheless this is one of my favorite breads. It's sweet, eggy, and fluffy, and impressive to look at to boot with its pretty braided coils and lacquered golden crust. Not to mention that it makes the world's best french toast.
At first, in an attempt to be healthy, I tried a whole-wheat challah, and well, it was a bit of a failure...despite carefully proofed yeast, meticulously weighed ingredients, yada yada, the challah wouldn't rise. Miffed, but undefeated, I turned to one of my all-time favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. I halved the recipe and did a four-strand braid, but other than that I followed Deb's fabulous recipe to a "T." It was super easy to do...give it a try!
Smitten Kitchen's Challah (Egg Bread)
originally adapted by Deb, of Smitten Kitchen, from Joan Nathan
Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising
Yield: 1 loaf (this is the half-size recipe...the original makes two loaves)
0.75 Tablespoons active dry yeast
0.5 tablespoon plus 0.25 cup sugar
0.25 cup vegetable oil, plus a bit extra for oiling the bowl
3 large eggs (the original called for 5 eggs, but 2.5 eggs seemed silly to me, so I used three)
0.5 tablespoon salt
4 to 4.25 cups all-purpose flour
sesame seeds for sprinkling.
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 0.5 tablespoon sugar in 3/4 cups + 2 Tablespoons lukewarm water.
2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Add flour, a half cup or so at a time. When dough pulls away from sides of bowl slightly to form a shaggy mass that holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but I prefer the bowl and spoon method)
3. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until elastic. pliable, and smooth (make sure it passes the windowpane test to make sure gluten is fully developed). Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl, turning once to cover all sides of dough ball. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until roughly doubled in size (the top of my fridge is the perfect rising place for me). Gently deflate dough, cover again and let rise once more in a warm place for an additional half-hour.
4. Turn dough out onto lightly (very lightly) floured surface, gently deflate and divide into sections for braiding. For a simple braid, do three sections. I did four, as I made a four strand braid. Braid the challah, and place on an oiled baking sheet.
5. Brush tops with beaten egg, or combo of beaten egg and milk. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, place somewhere warm and let rise for an hour. If you use the original recipe and make two challah, make sure to leave at least 3 inches between the loaves, as they'll grow quite a bit.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again with egg/egg+milk wash. Sprinkle bread with sesame seeds, if using.
7. Bake in middle of oven for 30-40 minutes, or until golden (loaves should sound hollow when tapped). Cool loaf on a rack, and try to resist tearing into it immediately!
*NOTE: I have paraphrased Deb's original recipe, as I do not feel it is appropriate for me to simply "cut & paste" her work, though I did not alter the recipe beyond halving it. For her original post and (wonderful) recipe, follow this link!