April 04, 2015

Baking Challah: I made bread!!

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the two most photographed loaves of bread on the internet!

Yesterday was a big day!! A first for people-food and a big first for me; I baked my first two loaves of [amazing] bread.

There is truly something incredible about baking your own bread. It's right up there with eating veggies you grow in your own backyard. (Another goal for this summer.)

After putting it off for I don't know how long, I finally decided not to be intimidated by baking bread, and just go for it. (Partly fueled, I think, by my success with Lemon Curd earlier in the week.)

Easter breakfast was a big tradition in my family growing up. It was the one day of the year that I was allowed to have candy for breakfast... and we also had Polish kielbasa, scrambled eggs, and challah.
 You say Easter, and I can feel the elasticity of the bread pulling apart, smell the yeasty aroma, and taste the slightly sweet and eggy taste of a great loaf of challah. (I was always more excited about the bread than I was about the jelly beans or the chocolate.)

In the past few years, because of work and other commitments, I have missed out on my beloved challah and "traditional" Easter breakfast. This year though- when the sight of the lamb-shaped butter sculpture had me tearing up at the grocery store- I knew it was time to reinstate my tradition.

That's when the panic set in. I couldn't find any challah in my grocery store. So, on a whim ("Let me just see how hard it is to make...") I searched the internet for recipes/how to's... I was very encouraged to see that two of my favorite food blogs had recipes listed, and it all seemed pretty simple. I decided to go for it... that's when I started to get really excited. Not only would I have my traditional breakfast, but I'd get to make the food that meant the most to me, and finally bake some bread!

I chose to use the recipe I found at Smitten Kitchen (minus the braiding instructions). I wanted to make two loaves, I love her blog, and making and enjoying challah seemed to be as important to her as it is to me. I made minor adjustments (I didn't use raisins in my dough, and I chose not to top my loaves with poppyseeds), but I am including photos for some step-by-step help/encouragement...

"Best Challah"
From Smitten Kitchen; makes 2 loaves

3 3/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more to grease the bowl
5 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp table salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tbsp of sugar in warm water and set aside about 5 minutes- until a bit foamy.
2. Whisk oil into yeast. Beat in 4 eggs- one at a time- along with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.
3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.* Then, clean your bowl, grease it with oil, and return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. (I used the proof setting on my oven.)
4. Punch down dough*, cover and let rise again in a warm place for 30 minutes
5. Divide risen dough into halves. To make a 6-braid challah, take half the dough, and form it into 6 balls, forming a 12-16 inch strand with each ball. Braid*. Alternately, to make a 3-braid challah, divide half of the dough into 3 balls. Roll balls into 12-16 inch long strands, and braid as you would braid hair. (I made one 6-braid loaf and one 3-braid loaf.) Tuck ends underneath. Repeat with other half of your dough. Place loaves on greased cookie sheet (or use parchment paper) with at least 2 inches in between.

6. Beat remaining whole egg, and brush half of it on loaves. Let rise another hour.
7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and brush loaves again with remaining egg.
8. Bake in middle of oven for 30-35 minutes, or until golden. (Or, it reads 190 degrees on instant read thermometer.) Cool loaves on rack.

I am really in awe of finished product: two incredible loaves of bread. This recipe produced some of the most perfect challah I have ever had.... and I made it! The 2 egg washes made for some beautiful browning, and a perfect crust over the chewy and tender dough inside... This bread brings back so many happy memories- and has already helped me make new ones with my boys. (We started eating it as soon as it was cooled down!) It was a lot easier to make than I expected it to be, too (a big bonus!), the most challenging part was the braiding (see notes below). 

I can't wait to bake more bread!!

*Notes: "Knead until smooth." This being my first experience making bread, I had to look this up. Kneading until smooth, means kneading your dough for about 8-10 minutes; the dough starts to magically really come together, feels smooth/elastic, and becomes slightly tacky. (It also starts to hold its shape if you pick it up single handedly.) "Punch down" I looked this one up too. You need to do more than just push your fist down into the center of your dough once. Your goal when you punch it down is to deflate it, in order to improve the texture of your final product. After you punch down the center of your dough, you should knead it gently within the bowl/flip it over and make sure that you get all of the air out. Braiding. I found the instructions on Smitten Kitchen to be nearly impossible to follow (partly, I think because I had a fussy baby in the kitchen with me). I had much better luck following the words and pictures that come with the Challah recipe at thekitchn.

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