|Challah, you knotty little mix of a bread, you - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
Challah is a gorgeous bread, hands down. Reminiscent of a French brioche, it's got eggs, plenty of yeast to make it rise like crazy, and it gets shellacked like a mofo with egg to give it that incredible shiny browned surface. It's great for making French toast, delicious as buns for burger and sandwiches, and just tasty to eat on its own. And it's a beautiful bread to look at -- the tradition of braiding the bread into loaves, complex boules and even wreaths comes down to the Jewish Shabbat, which represents unity. The days of the week represent diversity, and many times challah bread is made up of 6 strands of dough, braided together to make a single loaf. The food is a representation of interwoven blessings, which is both a lovely idea to consider as well as to look at.
The thing that surprised me the most about making challah from scratch was how easy it was. For a basic challah dough, I like Food 52's recipe, shown here. You can mix it by hand, but having a mixer with a dough hook definitely makes it easier. The dough is sticky and needs time to rest and rise. I devised a lazy way of proofing, using the refrigerator for a very long proof, like one or two days chillin' like a villain in a large bowl, covered with plastic wrap. You give up a bit of space in the fridge, but it's worth it if you don't have time to do everything in a single day. Once the dough has had a couple of days to proof in the fridge, I let it come to room temperature, either covered and sitting on the counter if it's a warm day, or I often keep it covered and sitting in the oven with just the oven light on for a couple of hours. In that time, it will come to room temperature and also do another rise, doubling in size. At that point, you can start rolling it out and shaping your dough. A benefit to letting the dough proof in the fridge for a long time is even after it's come to temperature and had a second proof, it doesn't need a lot of flour to make it manageable during shaping; I'm assuming the extra-long resting time has allowed the gluten to relax, and it just makes the dough very easy to handle.
Challah's flavor can also be modified; my first attempt at making it was based off this non-traditional recipe, inspired by Chinese scallion cakes, from My Jewish Learning - a recipe for Asian Challah. I modified this modification, adding shreds of cheddar instead of Chinese spices, but the idea of stuffing the braids with a filling can be customized any way you wish. You can make savory or sweet-stuffed challah. Fill it with nuts and dried fruit. Brown sugar and cinnamon. Heck you could make it completely un-Kosher and fill it with bacon. The dough is very forgiving and easy to work with, the flavor profile is neutral enough, so this can be whatever bread you want it to be.
|A cheese and scallion-stuffed version of challah - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
Shaping the dough can be as simple or complex as you like. The Interwebs is an invaluable tool -- photos and drawn instructions will appear like magic when you type in "challah braid instructions" in a search engine. I kept things simple, doing a basic 3-strand braid for my first challah loaf, but I was inspired by some of the more complex styles, and have made mini sandwich bun-sized loaves, which are twisted and knotted. I used a method similar to this instructional page on The Secret of Challah, which has great visual instructions on both full sized braided loaves and smaller bun knots.
|Big or small, challah is beautiful to work with! - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
|The secret to beautiful challah - 2 egg washes, cheesy filling and a happy dog - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
|The rewards of baking your own bread! - Photo by Wasabi Prime|