the love of the plait and its sweaty beginnings ::::
I found one of my favorite breads when I was 17 years old. It started with a braid. How fancy, I thought, just like a real bakery. I learned how to braid challah from the most self-absorbed chef I have ever met. He loved a good pizza and to talk about himself. I figured he knew his bread if he knew how to make pizza dough. Jim was from New Jersey, somewhat itinerant, finding work in odd places for variable time frames. It was in Maine that I met Jim, when I was covered in flour and butter in the un-air-conditioned back kitchen of a restaurant. Every day, we worked steadily on creating Linzer Tortes, zucchini bread, mini Boston Cream Pies, strawberries soaked in champagne, and gallons of chocolate mousse. Rather, he showed me once and let me create solo, he tearing his sweaty apron off of his sweaty thin white t-shirt, hiking up his pants before they lingered sweaty crack-ward, and walking home midday.
The challah was different. Jim took the helm on this creation, nurturing it, keeping the flour-covered assistant away until the last minute so he could call it his own and take the credit. Besides the taste, the one thing that I like most about this bread is the braiding technique. I didn’t find this five-strand method mentioned anywhere else until recently when I perused other challah recipes. The challah Jim first made that summer was for a wedding held at the restaurant’s sister inn, wedding cake also created in the kitchen, but by the mousy, egotistical head chef and his sometimes flame, a bright-eyed, tanned, and overly friendly woman. By the end of the event, I wanted to just go home, tired after the plummet of adrenaline from the wedding reception’s preparation. All I wanted was to take some challah home, eat it quietly sitting on the couch, Naomi Wolf’s book in hand.
But I didn’t. No challah for the restaurant staff. No pat on the back for the teenage lackey helping in the kitchen, getting paid minimum wage for a job someone from culinary school should have had. So I made my own. And it was better than Jim’s. Prettier, tastier, and a lot less sweaty.
- ⅓ cup warm water (110-115 degrees F.)
- 1 package dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
- 1 teaspoon sugar + 3 Tablespoons sugar, divided
- 4½ cups bread flour (20 ounces)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ⅓ cup oil
- 2 eggs plus enough water to make 1 cup total + 1 egg for glazing
- Stir together the 1 teaspoon sugar, yeast and water. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.
- Break eggs into 1 cup glass measure. Add warm water to 1 cup line. Empty this into large bowl. Add oil. Whisk together. Add the rest of the sugar and approximately 2 cups of the flour. Mix together well.
- Add yeast mixture and beat for about 2 minutes. Combine salt with remaining flour. Add about 2 cups of the flour and stir until flour is worked in. Set aside ½ cup of remaining flour. Gradually add the rest of the flour, working in as best you can. Sprinkle the ½ cup of flour you set aside onto counter top.
- Turn out dough mixture and knead for about 10 minutes. Note: challah dough should be quite soft--not sticking to your hands but almost doing so. The ½ cup of flour will be worked into the dough when you finish. If you must, work in a little extra flour, but no more than essential to have a dough that can be handled.
- Remove the dough to an oiled bowl. Cover bowl with oiled plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place (75-85 degrees F.) until doubled. Time will vary, depending on room temperature, from 45 minutes to 1½ hours. (I usually let it go about an hour at least.)
- Gently flour the counter top where you wish to shape bread. Empty dough out gently (don’t punch down). BRAIDING (the fun part!) with 5 strands: 1 over 3, 2 over 3, 5 over 2. Repeat and tuck end under. Place this on oiled baking sheet or silicon mat. Cover loosely with oiled wrap and set aside to rise until doubled (about an hour for me). Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. before dough has fully doubled.
- Whisk glaze together: 1 egg, 1-teaspoon water, pinch salt. When dough has doubled, brush on glaze. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake in lower third of oven for 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 degrees F, and bake 10-15 minutes longer, until loaf is golden. Cool on rack.
- Leftovers make wonderful french toast. Day old bread also freezes well and makes nice bread crumbs after a whiz in a food processor.