Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Bread is very special to me.  I haven't bought a loaf from a store for about two years because making it fresh at home is so wonderful.  All cooking and baking is a magical, transformative ritual, but to me, bread is especially so.  The smell of the yeast, the rising dough, the tactile connection in kneading and shaping the loaves.  Bread is an earthy process, transformed through fire.  It takes time, patient attention and hands-on work, and the result is something that really comes alive.

Baking bread is also taking part in a cultural tradition that may date back 30,000 years.  Nearly every country or region has at least one of their own - okay, maybe not Japan, but I guess that's why this is a thing.  Breaking bread with loved ones and guests is an ancient tradition that lives on in nearly every important life ritual- from holiday celebrations, weddings and funerals to the daily family meal.

This challah recipe, from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, is my go-to bread.  I should post this eggy Jewish bread in early spring - one of its traditional preparations is done after Passover, it's very similar to a bread my Grandma makes for Easter, and of course an eggy loaf is perfect for the Vernal Equinox.  But I can't wait that long!  I make this bread once or twice a month (depending on rate of bread consumption) and freeze to take out as needed.  Or I pass it out to friends and relatives - everyone's always eager for a bite fresh from the oven!  It will make four small loaves, or two large braided loaves, or two small loaves and 8 or 9 big burger buns/sandwich rolls, or more than enough small dinner rolls for 15 people at Thanksgiving, plus leftovers.

It's good for everything.  Sandwiches - tuna melts, grilled cheese, egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers (yum), anything.  And the best toast!  Toast with grass-fed butter, toast with butter AND honey, toast with jam, cinnamon toast, toast with peanut butter so it gets all melty, toast dipped in a sunny-side up egg- of course, all of these are best served with tea.  And FRENCH TOAST!  I'm going to be posting my recipe for that soon.  Many people have told me it's the best they've ever had.

Now, if you're new to bread, don't be afraid.  It is a tricky creature.  Every type of loaf is unique and you need to learn the tendencies of that particular bread's process so you can compensate if needed.  When I try a new bread, the first time I make it is usually okay, but I learn how it works and the second time it's amazing!  I'll try my best to add notes about the tendencies I've observed with my years of making this recipe, but experience is the best teacher - and it doesn't take much!  You just need to try it once to get a feel for it and I bet you'll never look back.

Also, take note: this is a two-day process, so plan ahead!  The dough needs to rise in the fridge overnight, or for up to four days.  The slower, cold rising process develops better texture and flavor than a quick-rising process at a warm temperature.

Special equipment: stand mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments, food scale (not necessary but it's useful,) dough scraper (also not necessary but useful,) basting brush (I recommend the kind with real bristles over the silicone kind, they just dump a puddle of liquid instead of spreading it evenly), parchment paper or silicone mat, food thermometer


save eggwhites for an omelet or meringue!

2-1/4 cups (18 oz / 510 g) lukewarm water
1-1/2 tbsp (0.5 oz / 14 g) instant yeast (if you're going to be doing any bread baking in the future, get the kind in the jar instead of the packets, much better price)
8 to 10 egg yolks (6 oz / 170 g), depending on weight
5 tbsp (2.5 oz / 71 g) oil (I use safflower but vegetable works)
6 tbsp (3 oz / 85 g) sugar, or 4-1/2 tbsp honey or agave nectar (I always use honey and have been known to use the full 6 tbsp of it)
1 tbsp vanilla extract (optional)
7-1/2 cups (34 oz / 964 g) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 tsp (0.66 oz / 19 g) salt, or 4 tsp kosher coarse kosher salt
1 egg white or whole egg, for egg wash (using a whole egg gives the loaves a darker crust)
2 tbsp water, for egg wash
2 tbsp poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or combination for garnish (optional)

Do Ahead:

Combine the water and yeast in a mixing bowl and stir with a whisk to dissolve.  Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar or honey, and vanilla and whisk lightly to break up the egg yolks.  Then add the flour and salt.  Using the paddle attachment, mix on lowest speed for 2 minutes.  The dough should be coarse and shaggy.  Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium-low speed for 4 minutes.  Challah likes to try to climb up the mixer and out of the bowl - the platform piece at the top of the dough hook will help keep it down, but you might have to stop and scrape it down with a rubber spatula half way through if it starts to escape.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, then dust the top of the dough with flour.  Lightly knead for 1-2 minutes, adding more flour as needed to prevent sticking.  This is where the dough scraper comes in handy.  The dough should be soft, supple and tacky but not sticky.  I find that you need to use a light hand kneading it, and once you've got the outside sufficiently floured to handle, don't keep trying to turn out the inside part of the dough - it will continue to be sticky and adding too much flour will make the dough stiff.

Form the dough into a ball, place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  (I use two pieces and leave a lot of slack overlapping in the middle - the dough is going to rise a LOT, even in a really big bowl, so make sure you leave enough head room in the fridge and enough plastic to cover it as it rises.  Otherwise its doughy lovehandles will pop out around the sides and get a yucky crust on them that you have to pull off.)  Immediately refrigerate the dough overnight or for up to 4 days.  If you plan to bake the dough in batches over different days, you can portion the dough and place it into two or more oiled bowls at this stage.

On Baking Day:

Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours and 10 minutes before you plan to bake.  (It almost always takes me more than 10 minutes to shape my loaves, especially if I'm making a bunch of rolls, but I don't want the dough to rise too much so I try to kind of split the difference, keeping an eye on them and putting the first tray in as soon as it looks sufficiently risen, even if it's been less than 2 hours since I finished forming the dough.)

The following is for making braided loaves: Transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and cut it into the desired number of pieces to make strands for braiding, making sure all of the pieces are the same weight. (This is where the food scale comes in if you didn't already use it for the ingredients; it's also good for making sure all your rolls are the same size.)  I find lightly dusting the exposed interior part of the loaf after each cut useful for making sure it doesn't stick to your hands, but make sure not to over-flour.  For braiding- flatten each piece with your hand, then roll the pieces into a cigar or torpedo shape.  After doing this with each piece, return to the first one and roll it out into a rope 10 to 14 inches long (the bigger the piece of dough, the longer the rope.)  Make sure each rope is the same length.  They will probably keep shrinking up on you, too, so I just stretch them out again as I braid.

Now when it comes to braiding, the book has a page of photos illustrating different techniques, which I still find confusing.  I won't even try to put the method for the more complicated ones into words.  For a simple 3-piece braid, it is the same process as braiding hair- except that instead of starting at one end, you start by crossing over the pieces in the middle.  Then braid from the center to each end of the loaf, tucking the ends underneath.  This helps make the braid more even (although mine often come out wonky anyway.)

If you're making rolls, 2 oz is a good size for dinner rolls, and 3 oz is a good size for generous sandwich rolls / hamburger buns.  On forming them, the book has this to say: Place the dough on the work surface, cup your hand around it, then rapidly rotate the dough in a circular motion, as if trying to push it through the work surface. If need be, wipe the work surface with a damp towel to create traction to help you round the dough into a tight, smooth ball.

It took actually working in a bakery for me to figure out what the heck that meant, but essentially you are using the friction of your work surface to pull the skin of the dough down and under, tightening and smoothing it out.  Once you can feel this happening just by pushing the dough forward and down in one direction, try to start the circular motion that will pull the skin tight from all sides.  Eventually you'll get the hang of it once you know what you're going for!

Once the loaves are braided/rolls formed/etc, transfer them to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Make an egg wash by combining the egg white or whole egg and 2 tablespoons of water and whisking briskly until thoroughly combined.  Brush the entire visible surface of the loaves with the egg wash (make sure it doesn't puddle too much on the parchment or the bottom of the rolls may burn), then refrigerate any remaining egg wash and let the loaves rise, uncovered, at room temperature for about 1 hour; they won't rise very much during this time.  Brush with the egg wash again, then sprinkle on the optional seeds.  Let the loaves rise at room temperature for about 1 hour, or until increased to about 1-1/2 times their original size.

About 15 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177 C) or 300 F for a convection oven. 

I have to say, the recommended baking time for these loaves is pretty high based on my experience.  If you're doing two large loaves, it may work: bake for about 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temperature is about 190 F (88 C) in the center.  The internal temp is the most important guideline.  When I'm doing four small loaves (two at a time,) I rotate the tray after 10 minutes, then test the temperature after another 10 and every 2 minutes after that until the loaves reach 190.  For sandwich rolls, I rotate after about 6-7 minutes and test after 12 or so.  If you used a whole egg in the egg wash, the crust will get darker than with an egg white wash; don't be fooled into thinking the bread is done because of this.  And the larger the loaf, the longer the baking time and the darker the crust will be.  Just keep testing and pull them out as soon as they pass 190!  The crust of the loaf will seem hard when it first comes out of the oven, but it will soften as it cools.

Cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes (less for small rolls of course) before slicing or serving.  I know, I know.  I've been known to throw caution to the wind and shove some in my face as soon as I can touch it without burning my fingers - if you, too feel you won't be able to resist, make yourself a little roll or two to eat fresh from the oven.  Slicing into them when they haven't cooled makes the interior of the loaf get smushed and it will still taste a bit doughy, and get melty if you put butter on it.  That doesn't mean I don't do it.  Just save most of the bread for when it's cool!

When I used to buy bread like a sane person, I would always go for the whole wheatiest, nuttiest, oatiest, seediest loaf I could find.  That's where all the flavor is!  Everyone knows white bread from the grocery store is so, well... white bread.  Then I made this and I got hooked.  The rich flavor, the soft texture, the perfection of this paired with just about everything- I have to say, I have not tried all that many breads since.  I always meant to make a nice hearty nutty loaf, but then I knew this would turn out so well and how could I resist making it again?  It's my hope that having this blog to answer to will drive me to put aside my beloved challah for a time and make some new breads!

Here is my hoard of rolls for Thanksgiving dinner!  These were all about 2.5 oz when I formed the rolls.

And because I have to travel a bit for Thanksgiving this year, I will also show you my technique for storing fresh bread.  If you're going to leave it out to eat, DON'T PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE!  It will only get stale a lot faster!  Just wrap it up in plastic wrap and/or put it in a large ziploc bag.

If you want to freeze some for later, as soon as the bread is completely cooled, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap, and then a layer or two of aluminum foil.  Overkill?  Maybe a little, but you didn't go to all this trouble to have your homemade bread freezer burned!  Bread defrosts really quickly at room temp and it will be almost as good as fresh from the oven.


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