This is the second recipe in our Reader’s Choice series, put on in partnership with my fabulous friends over at Cookstr.com.
This recipe is originally by Nick Malgieri, former executive pastry chef at New York’s Windows on the World and current director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education. The recipe is featured on Cookstr.com, as well as in Malgieri’s book, How to Bake.
I’m pleased as can be about the timing of this post. It’s just in time for the Jewish New Year this weekend. And the cooler weather we’ve been having this week has left me just itching to bake.
So what is Challah bread, anyway?
Challah is a traditional yeast bread—with a glossy crust frequently dappled with sesame seeds—that gets its trademark golden yellow color from the addition of eggs.
Older recipes include several eggs. Most modern versions, like this one, usually call for fewer. (In this case, just two whole eggs plus one additional yolk.)
While it’s eaten in many parts of Europe, it’s probably most well known in the U.S. as a Jewish celebration bread served on the Sabbath and holidays.
You can form the airy bread into several different shapes. A braid is one of the most traditional.
Freshly baked Challah keeps for a day or two on the counter, and freezes well for about a month. It also makes a-ma-zing French toast. (More on that soon.)
While I’ve baked dozens of loaves in my day, I’m by no means an expert on the history and lore of Challah, so if you have other fun facts, please pipe up and leave a comment!
How to make braided bread (it’s easier than you might think!)
In my book, braided breads are some of the most satisfying—and forgiving—loaves to bake.
You can be fairly imprecise with your braid. It can be a little uneven. It can be lumpy. But, it always amazes me how a little time in the oven can transform a few tightly twisted ropes of dough into a poofy, gloriously impressive work of art.
I mean, this:
Turns into this (yes, please!):
Challah isn’t the only bread that takes well to braiding. I’ve also made braided French loaves…
And chocolate loaves…
It’s also really easy to turn a braid into a wreath. Just connect the two ends so the braid forms a circle. Then pinch it together so that it’s secure.
Here’s a large loaf of Challah-like bread I made for New Years a year or two ago. I doubled my dough recipe. The finished bread was about as big as a large pizza pan—and a huge hit at the party we brought it to.
Braided breads are great to bring to holiday gatherings. They look impressive, but are really pretty simple to make—even if you consider yourself a really novice baker.
(Read on for step-by-step instructions on forming the loaf. Trust me. If you can braid your pigtails, you can make a braided bread.)
Tips on equipment & ingredients for making challah
Malgieri makes this bread in a food processor. I used my 11-cup Cuisinart to mix the dough, per his recipe, but my bowl was pretty close to full—which meant I had a hard time getting the dough to come together.
The next time I make this, I’ll definitely opt for my stand mixer. (You could also make this the old fashioned way: With a wooden spoon and a lot of elbow grease.)
Oh, and about the yeast. No matter what brand of yeast you’re using, always measure it with a measuring spoon—even if it comes out of one of those little envelopes. Packets of yeast are notorious for not always containing the same amount of yeast.
Take two seconds to measure it out and be sure you’re not tossing in too much—or too little. If your house is hot (or you don’t bake a lot), store your yeast in the freezer to help it keep longer.
Alrighty. To the ovens!
Braided Challah Bread
By Nick Malgieri
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup warm tap water (about 110 degrees)
2 1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
1/4 cup vegetable oil + a little more for the bowl during the first rise
2 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
Egg wash: 1 egg well beaten with a pinch of salt
Yields 1 large, braided loaf
Make the challah dough
Put the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of your food processor. Pulse the dry ingredients together quickly to combine them.
Put the water in a separate bowl and toss in the yeast.
Whisk the yeast and water together to combine well.
Pour in the oil. (I used olive oil, but use a milder flavor oil, like canola, if you like.)
Add the eggs to the mixture.
Whisk to combine well. You want to completely incorporate the eggs. Your mixture will be about the color of cafe-au-lait.
Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients in your food processor, pulsing about 8-10 times as you go.
When all the liquid is in the bowl of your food processor, run the machine continuously for about 30 seconds, until the dough comes together and balls up. (This is where I ran into a little trouble.)
I wound up taking the cap off my Cuisinart twice, scraping down the sides and loosening up the dough, then processing it again quickly. This is where I decided to use my stand mixer next time. You want your dough to look about like this:
Challah dough: The first rise
When your dough has come together, transfer it to a lightly floured board.
Round it up into a neat ball with your hands and knead it a few times.
Drizzle a little oil (again, I used olive oil) into a large mixing bowl. I used maybe a tablespoon, give or take.
Toss your dough ball into the bowl with the oil. Roll it around to coat it completely. (This will keep it from sticking to the bowl later on.)
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a few warm, damp paper towels (I like to do this, because that little bit of heat and moisture give the yeast a little boost). Set the bowl aside on the counter and let it rise for about an hour, until it’s about doubled in size.
Braid the dough and let it rise a second time
Once your dough has about doubled in size, you’re ready to braid it. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Set it aside while you deal with the dough.
Transfer your dough to a lightly floured board. Smoosh the air out of it with your hands.
Round it up gently into a tidy little ball.
Whack it in three even pieces with a bencher or butcher’s knife. Make the pieces as even as you can, but don’t make yourself nuts. (If you want to make them perfectly even, weigh each piece of dough.)
Take one piece of dough and roll it out into a rope that’s about 12-15 inches long.
Repeat with the other two blobs of dough. When you’re done, set the ropes on your prepared sheet pan.
Now, for the braiding. Turn the pan so that the dough is pointed at you like this:
Start braiding in the middle of the dough. (Yep, you heard me: In the middle, not at one end. Malgieri said that doing it this way helps create a more even braid. And he’s totally right.) Braid away!
Leave the ends a little loose for now.
Your braid should be half done, and look about like this:
Repeat with the other side.
When the braid is complete, grab the ends of one side. Pinch them together and tuck them neatly under the loaf.
Repeat with the other end. And your bread is ready for its second rise!
Cover the dough braid with a piece of lightly oiled plastic wrap. Set it on the counter for another hour, or until it’s just about doubled in size.
Bake the challah!
About 15 minutes before your second rise is done, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. When your dough braid has doubled in size, it should look about like this:
Beat up the egg wash really quickly. (Crack an egg in a bowl, toss in a pinch of salt, and whip furiously for a minute or two until frothy.)
Using a brush (or even your fingers) gently brush the surface of the dough braid with the beaten egg. Be careful not to press too hard on the dough, because you can deflate it.
Pop your pan into your preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the top is nice and brown.
When it’s done, it should register about 210 degrees on the inside (use a meat thermometer), and should produce a hollow sound when you thump the crust with your fingers.�
Let it cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer it to a wire rack to finish cooling. (Resist the urge to tear into it when it’s piping hot. It can leave your loaf a little gummy when it cools.)