My mom always made home-made bread when I was growing up. She would admit, I think, that she was a terrible cook, but she was one hell of a baker. She baked everything: bread and cookies and cakes – beautiful cakes (including a birthday cake that was a Barbie in a full-length hoop-style dress, where the dress was the cake – I wish I had a picture of it. Update: thanks to my friend Kristin, I have a picture of one that she made that was just like it!) and pies and bars and brownies.
I loved when she baked because I have a sweet tooth. And because my mom was also a health-nut (confused?), her idea of an everyday sweet treat for my sister and me was a peanutbutter-honey-whey ball rolled in unsweetened coconut. Which, now, actually sounds pretty delicious, but back then was a very distant second place to a warm, chewy, sugar cookie.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that if learned to bake, I had a better chance of having a food item made with refined sugar. So I learned to bake… when I was really little – as in standing-on-a chair-in-order-to-reach-the-counter little. And along the way, I learned to make bread.
One of the breads my mom taught me to make was challah. For those of you who don’t know, challah is a kind of braided egg bread that is traditionally served by Jews on Shabbat. During Rosh Hashana, however, the loaves are shaped into spirals or rounds symbolizing the continuity of creation. Sometimes raisins or honey are added to the recipe in order to make the resulting loaves extra sweet. My family isn’t Jewish, so I am not sure where my mom learned to make such amazing challah, but I do remember thinking it was the most delicious bread she made… and it was pretty.
No matter your religion, challah is a bread that is delicious on any occasion and at any time of year, but, in honor of Rosh Hashana 2017 (5777), which begins at sundown on Sunday, October 2, I am sharing with you my favorite challah recipe. It is a modification of a New York Times recipe for Fennel and Orange-Scented Seeded Challah. And this year, it is one of three types I will be making it for a client to serve at her Rosh Hashana luncheon.
Orange Scented Seeded Challah by annelovescoffeemore
1 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (less than 100 degrees)
Grated zest from 2 large oranges plus 1/2 cup of the juice, strained
2 T. brandy
1/3 cup honey
1 stick of salted butter, melted and cooled to room temp
3 large eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon salt
5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
1 whole egg for egg wash
1 T. sugar for egg wash
2 T. cornmeal (for the baking sheet)
Dissolve yeast in a cup of warm water (ideally between 105 and 110 degrees but no warmer) with a teaspoon of sugar. This is to “proof” the yeast so you can make sure it is still living and able to make your dough rise. You will know it is alive if it forms a thick layer of bubbles at the top of the cup. If there is not at least a 1/2 inch of bubbles at the top of your cup… or it looks like it is just a thick layer of “slightly bubbly” looking paste at the top of the cup, you need to get new yeast… Don’t waste your time with that yeast… your bread will not rise, and you will be so sad you spent the time and ingredients on nothing. Here is a picture that shows what I think should be the minimum foam at the top of the cup when you have let the yeast proof for 10 minutes…
While the yeast is proofing, mix together the eggs, egg yolks, honey, the luke-warm/room-temp melted butter, orange juice, orange zest, brandy and salt in a large bowl. Once the yeast has proofed, add it to this mixture.
Next, add flour, one cup at a time, until the mixture has thickened enough to work by hand. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for 5-10 minutes incorporating additional flour in order to produce a tender but smooth dough. Shape into a ball.
Rub softened butter inside a large bowl, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and cover with a damp (not wet), warm towel. If you are making this challah on a cool day, I recommend warming the oven for 2-3 minutes and then placing the bowl of dough inside the oven to rise (IMPORTANT: turn the oven off, first). This will provide the warmish environment for the dough to rise. Let rise for about one hour or until doubled in size.
After the dough has risen, uncover and punch down. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, again, and cut it into 3 or 6 pieces, depending on if you are brave enough to attempt a six-strand braid. 🙂
Roll each piece of dough into a long strand (about 15-20 inches long). Then braid the strands and curl the braid into the shape of a circle. Place the circle of challah on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover the challah dough with a piece of buttered plastic wrap (buttered side face down on the dough to keep the plastic from sticking to it), and then cover that with a warm, damp towel. Let the challah dough rise again for about 45 minutes until doubled in size.
Note: If you want to make your challah the night before you bake it, place the braided round of dough on the baking sheet in the refrigerator overnight. Then take your dough out of the refrigerator the next morning, and let it come to room temperature for about an hour. Once it is room-temperature, it will finish rising – that is okay. If you use the overnight method, give yourself enough time for the dough to come to room-temp and complete the second rise (maybe as much as two hours depending on the temperature that day). The most important thing is that the dough is not cold when you bake it.
Towards the end of the rising period, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
After the second rise has completed, brush the dough with a mixture of one beaten egg, 1 T. sugar, and 1 T. water. Sprinkle the dough with the seed mixture. Place the dough on a rack in the middle of the oven, and bake for 30-40 until golden brown. When it is finished baking, the bottom of the challah loaf will sound hollow when tapped.
City-dweller, designer, writer and lifestyle consultant practicing the art of living well in the 21st Century. Fixated with good coffee, great design, and any little thing that makes life better.