Confession for the week: most of the cooking I do involves the oven. I’m a baker, plain and simple; I love cupcakes, muffins, home-baked bread, layer cakes, popovers, cinnamon rolls - but mostly what I love about them is the making-of, as it were. The behind the scenes footage. The blooper reel. (Have I ever posted about my first attempt at an Angel Food Cake that resulted in a one inch thick layer of what appeared to be vanilla-flavored bubble gum? No? Well, that’s probably for the best.)
I don’t actually like eating baked goods that much. I just don’t have enough of a sweet tooth to tear through a dozen cookies by myself, or even eat a whole piece of cake on my own. I know, I know, I should be ashamed of myself. What kind of baker doesn’t like baked goods? I’m an asshole. My mad oven skillz are wasted on me.
But let me tell you, challah is another story. I love everything about challah, from start to finish. (Not the ultimate “finish” - in my world, food begins and ends in the kitchen, and poop is something entirely unrelated. You’re welcome.) From the whisking of the flour and yeast to the finished product, it is glorious. The dough is so aromatic and it rises so easily, so smoothly! The braided loaf is so unbearably adorable! The eggwash leaves the crust so delicious crispy and flaky, leaving the inside moist and chewy! At a certain point I stop running out of appropriate adjectives, and just collapse in a puddle of drool and ecstasy.
We’re not going to talk about the time someone tried to tell me that challah is what you eat on Passover.
So last week, when I had finally managed to rescue my baking sheets from the black hole of doom also known as my old apartment, I took the opportunity to bake some goddamn challah. Because I’m worth it.
My favorite recipe (and I have tried a few) is a honey vanilla challah from a blog called Baking And Books.
Ingredients: Makes 1 Loaf
- 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of warm milk (whole is best, low-fat is ok too)
- 2 eggs + 1 for the glaze
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil + 1 teaspoon for greasing the bowl and another for the glaze
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon honey
In a large bowl using a whisk combine the yeast, sugar, salt and 1 cup of the flour. Add the warm milk, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, then the honey and vanilla. (Add the olive oil first, then use the same measuring spoon to add the honey – residual oil on the spoon will make the honey slide right out.) Vigorously mix the ingredients until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl halfway through, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, switching to a wooden spoon when the dough becomes too thick for the whisk. Continue mixing the dough until it is too stiff to stir.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until soft and springy, about 4 minutes. If the dough is sticky, dust with flour 1 tablespoon at a time – just enough to prevent it from sticking to the surface. The dough is done when it’s smooth and small air bubbles show under the skin. If you press your thumb into it the impression should bounce back. This is a slightly firm dough, which is exactly what you want for easy braiding later on.
Place the dough in a deep container greased with 1 tsp of olive oil. Turn the dough once to coat the top and cover with plastic wrap. Allow it to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease it with non-stick spray. Gently deflate the dough by pressing your fingers into it, then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface.
Divide into 3 equal portions, and roll each portion out into a smooth, thick strip about 20 inches long, with the ends slightly thinner than the middle. Lay these ropes side-by-side, not quite touching.
Beginning in the middle and working towards you, braid the lower half of the three ropes. To braid, alternately move the outside ropes over the one in the center – left over, right over, left over -until you come to the end. Now go to the other side of your working space and braid the other half, this time moving the outside ropes under the center one. Braid tightly – you don’t want any gaps. When you finish braiding each side crimp the tapered ends together, then tuck them under.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and place the braided dough on your baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled in bulk, 30 to 40 minutes.
Just before the rising time has finished whisk together 1 egg and 1 teaspoon of olive oil, this is going to be the glaze for your bread. Gently brush the dough with a thick layer of it. Place the dough in the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the bread is a deep golden brown and sounds hollow when you thump it on the bottom. Transfer to a baking rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before slicing – or at least wait until it’s warm, not hot – then enjoy!