Please forgive me for being so late getting this posted. I was out of town last week for a food show in Deadwood, South Dakota. The weather was spectacular. We arrived a day early so we would have time for to see some sights. One of the closest was Mt. Rushmore, where I had not been since I was probably in junior high, which is longer ago than the 21 years I was presumed not to be of age when I was carded to buy a bottle of wine yesterday. I offered to kiss the clerk. Twice, but I digress. While there is a brand new visitors’ center and approach draped with the flags of all 50 states, the mountain hasn’t changed a bit. It seemed a little smaller than the last time I saw it, but that is due probably to the fact that I was looking upon a familiar sight this time, and as an alleged adult. I’ll have more to tell about the trip later, but right now we all need to be preparing for Easter. I suspect you are far ahead of me.
Challah is the stunning braided bread so typical of Easter. In The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart describes it as being “a European celebratory loaf symbolic of God’s goodness and bounty. The braids traditionally separate the loaf into 12 distinct sections representing the 12 tribes of Israel.” He further explains that the abundance of eggs in the bread likely stemmed from needing to use them up before the Sabbath day of rest prohibited all work, including the gathering of fresh eggs from beneath hens. Too, feast breads in general, regardless of the holiday, tend to be richer because they follow a period of fasting.
My recipe is a variation on Chef Peter’s. This one is sort of half-way between challah and brioche. I substitute milk for some of the water, and use whole eggs in addition to a healthy dose of butter. And I’ve added some fresh herbs as well. The herbs I used are ones that I either had on hand (chives, always chives) or that came in our Bountiful Baskets order this morning – fresh rosemary and marjoram. Use whatever your favorite herbs are, but be sure to use them fresh. Dried herbs won’t work well here because there isn’t enough moisture in the dough to adequately hydrate them.
This recipe makes either 2 small-ish loaves or 1 large one. I’m going the 2 small-ish route. My friend, Vegetable Woman, has kindly invited me to have Easter dinner with her parents, so I’ll take one to share and have one to use for sandwiches this week.
One of the problems with these rich, heavy doughs is that they tend to look done before they are done. That is because the egg glaze browns more quickly than the interior of the bread bakes. This is one of those breads where it is important to take its temperature in the middle of the center of the loaf to be sure it is adequately baked. It would be a shame to remove the beautiful loaf from the oven too early, then cut into it, only to find it gummy on the inside.
As for the premature browning, I don’t know what took me so long to arrive at a solution. I do not glaze the braids before placing them in the oven, as is conventional. At the half-way point of the baking time, when I’m opening the oven to rotate the loaves, that’s when I brush the loaves with a beaten egg loosened up with a bit of water. The remaining bake time gives the glaze ample time to bake to a deep, golden color, and also permits the bread to bake as long as it needs to. Everyone is happy.
Makes 2 braids
4 ounces water, room temp
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (or 1 1/2 tablespoons instant)
1 tablespoon honey (essentially 1 glug poured from the jar)
4 ounces milk, warmed to room temp
4 1/2 cups bread flour, plus 1/4 cup more if needed
2 teaspoons each: fresh rosemary, marjoram, and chives, minced
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 ounces soft butter
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup rice flour for shaping strands
1 egg egg beaten with 2 teaspoons water for glaze
Sea or kosher salt or for garnish
- Pour the water into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the dough hook. Sprinkle the yeast over the top, add the honey, then whisk to blend. Add the warmed milk.
- Add the flour, herbs, salt, butter, and eggs. If your butter is not soft, set it in a small bowl and microwave for 15 seconds on #3 heat. Begin mixing on low speed. Once all the flour appears to be hydrated, continue with kneading until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl. This will be a somewhat sticky dough (though nowhere near as sticky as brioche), so resist the urge to add more sprinkles of flour too soon. After about 3 or 4 minutes, if the dough still appears sticky and what I call “shaggy”, add flour a couple of tablespoons at a time just until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl. Stop kneading at that point.
- Use a white plastic scraper to pull the dough out onto a work surface sprinkled with some flour. Oil or pan-spray the bowl, then return the dough to it, turning it over once. Cover tightly with a piece of plastic and allow dough to proof at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- To shape your braids, turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. You won’t need a lot of flour, and in fact too much will make it difficult to shape the strands of the braids. If you have a kitchen scale, use it to divide your dough into two equal halves using a bench scraper. If you don’t have one, divide the dough as equally as you can. Use your bench scraper and scale again to divide each half into 3 equal pieces. Set the 6 pieces total a couple of inches apart and drape with your piece of plastic. Allow dough to rest for 15 minutes before you begin rolling it into strands. The rest period allows the gluten to relax from the stress of being chopped apart, so that the strands will be much easier to shape.
- From Chef Peter I learned the trick of using a bit of rice flour on the board when rolling the strands. Not only will the dough not stick to the board, but the strands also will not stick to each other as readily, causing each to rise up distinct from the others for a more dramatic finish. To shape each strand, begin rolling in the center, gradually lengthening with some pressure as you reach the ends. Chef Peter advises that the strands want to be thicker in the middle and tapered at the ends. This shape will help create beautiful braids that are also thicker in the middle, tapering to the ends. Shape all 6 strands before braiding the loaves. Be sure to roll them to 14 to 16 inches long. The braiding process effectively shortens the length, and you want loaves that are a good 12 inches long for that dramatic effect Chef Peter refers to.
- Braid each loaf with 3 strands of dough. Pinch each end together tightly and tuck underneath the loaf. Set each braid on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Drape your piece of plastic over the tops and allow the loaves to proof at room temperature until doubled, about an hour. The dough has risen adequately when you can gently (gently!) poke it and it retains the indentation of your finger. If it springs back right away, it needs to proof a bit longer.
- While dough is proofing, preheat oven to 350 degrees. When dough is ready, place in oven and bake for 25 minutes. Prepare your egg glaze. When the timer goes off, slide baking sheet out and quickly glaze the braids. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt or kosher salt. Slide the sheet back into the oven and bake for 20 minutes more. When the timer goes off, take the temperature of the bread at the center of the middle. It should read 185 degrees. If it doesn’t, bake in 5 minute increments until it does reach 185 degrees. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Challah is so moist that it is a good keeper. It can easily be baked a day in advance.
Have a lovely Easter!