Once upon a time, I was a bread baker. It was 2004 – the year I graduated from college – and I entered upon a particularly long stint of unemployment. I was still living in Seattle, in an old studio apartment near to the University of Washington. My apartment was falling apart, but it had a full-sized oven, a decent amount of counter space, and my very own Kitchen Aid mixer (my Christmas present from the year before). This Seattle winter was particularly cold and dreary, my job search was getting me down, and I had a lot of time on my hands. What else could I do but bake my way through The Bread Bible?
I fell in love with a lot of bread that winter. I made loaf after loaf of Beranbaum’s basic white sandwich bread, completely enamored with its fine texture and buttery flavor. I tried multiple times, without success, to make a loaf of ciabatta that had the open-holed, airy texture of the loafs I bought in the store. And I made challah. A lot of challah.
After all, I can’t think of a more comforting, or beautiful bread. The deep golden color of the crust and the honey color of the crumb gets me every time. This challah recipe is one of my favorites from The Bread Bible. It’s parve, which means it’s dairy-free, and it has the fine texture of a brioche without any of the butter. It’s sweetened with honey and moistened with corn oil, and it makes the best toast of any bread I’ve ever made.
It’s currently the Jewish high holidays, as Jews prepare to celebrate Yom Kippur, so challah is a timely project in your baking repertoire. I also think it’s a lovely project for these changing seasons, when the cool weather prompts us to turn to contemplative projects like bread baking. And besides, don’t you need some fabulous bread to make toast?
Adapted from The Bread Bible, By Rose Levy Beranbaum
Makes two 13 inch loaves
1 cup (5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp instant yeast
2/3 cup water, tepid
2 tbs honey
3 large eggs (room temperature)
4 2/3 cups (23.3 oz) flour
1 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 tbs salt
2 large eggs (cold)
1/3 liquid cup corn oil
6 tbs (3 fluid oz) honey
1 tbs cider vinegar
1 egg lightly beaten with 1 tbs water
In a mixer bowl fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk together all the ingredients for the starter. Whisk until very smooth – about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and yeast for the dough. Then whisk in the salt (this keeps the salt from coming into contact with the yeast, which would kill it). Gently sprinkle this mixture on top of the starter, covering it completely. Cover the starter bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature for 1-4 hours.
Add the eggs, oil, and honey to the mixer bowl and mix until the flour is moistened. Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead on medium speed for 4 minutes, until the dough is smooth and shiny. Scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface, kneading and adding additional flour if necessary so that the dough is just sightly sticky. Shape the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with lightly greased plastic wrap. Place in a warm place and let rise until doubled (1-2 hours).
Scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface and deflate gently. Give the dough a business letter fold and then place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise a second time – about 45 minute to an hour. Gently deflate the dough by pressing down on it, flattening it.
Scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into two equal pieces. Divide each piece into three equal pieces and let rest, covered with plastic wrap, for 10 minutes.
Take one piece of dough and roll under your palms until it is a long rope, flouring your hands as necessary. Lift the dough with one hand and gently pull down on the rope with your other hand to stretch it out. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough.
Lay three pieces of dough side-by side and tightly braid. Pinch the ropes together at the end of the braid, moisten with a little water, and tuck under the end. Place loaf on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining three pieces of dough.
Lightly brush loaves with egg glaze and loosely cover with lightly greased plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Remove the plastic wrap and brush the challah loaves with another coat of egg glaze. Place challah in oven and bake for 20 minutes. Loosely tent with foil and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, until the bread is deep golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack completely.