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Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Challah

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ImageBread baking is an art and a science that can be frustrating for the home cook.  In "Secrets of a Jewish Baker", George Greenstein uses his more than 20 years of professional baking experience to provide you with the details needed to flawlessly make exceptional bread at home.  While written by a Jewish Baker, the recipes in this cookbook extend far beyond traditional Jewish baking, including biscuits, muffins, sour dough bread, focaccia, naan, rye and many others.

Prior to delving into the recipes, George provides two detailed chapters on the basic ingredients and essential information needed to make bread.  These details include secret tips along with pointers on common mistakes and how to avoid them.  Each recipe also provides a wealth of information culled from George's years of experience to aid you in perfectly preparing each bread.  Try out today's recipe for Challah, the quintessential Jewish bread, and see for yourself how expertly George guides you through the baking process.

Challah

Reprinted with permission from Secrets of a Jewish Baker by George Greenstein. Copyright 2007. Published by Ten Speed Press.

Challah, or egg bread, is a sweet, egg-rich, festive-looking bread with an elegant mahogany hue. This bread was originally baked by Jewish families to grace the Sabbath or holiday table. Years ago, bakery customers who were unfamiliar with the name would ask for "the Friday bread."

Challah can be made up in different shapes, ranging from a sectioned pan loaf to fancy and intricate braids (see "Braiding Challah," below). On certain holidays it is made into a round, turban shaped bread. Today its use is becoming universal. It is found in ethnic bakeries and food markets of all kinds. Challah is often used as a centerpiece at Sunday dinner and appears on many Easter tables. When the bread is baked in braided form, it is customary to break off small knobs of it rather than cutting or slicing it. One literally breaks bread with guests and family. Leftover challah makes the best French toast I've ever eaten.
Challah dough is also used as rich egg roll dough and is made into many varieties of party or dinner rolls. In hot weather it's advisable to use cold ingredients to keep the dough temperature from becoming too high.

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 packages active dry yeast (1-1/2 tablespoons)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 4 to 4 1/2 cups bread flour (see Note)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Vegetable oil, for coating bowl
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water and a pinch of salt, for egg wash
  • Poppy or sesame seeds, for topping (optional)
  • Cornmeal, for dusting baking pan

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and allow to soften. Add the egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, 4 cups of the flour, and the salt. Stir until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, adding more flour 1/4 cup at a time if the dough is sticky or very soft. The dough should be firm. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well developed (10 to 15 minutes).

When you push down, the dough should feel firm and push back.

Rising: Transfer to an oiled bowl, turn to coat, and let rise, covered, until tripled in volume (30 to 40 minutes). When fully risen, an indentation made with a finger pushed down into the center of the dough should remain and not recede. This is a fully aged, or ready, dough. Punch down the dough, cut in half, cover, and allow to rise for 15 minutes.

Shaping: Punch down again and, on a very lightly floured work surface, use your palms to roll the pieces into 2 ropes, at least 12 inches long. Cut each into 6 equal pieces and braid or make up into a 6-section pan challah. Brush with the egg wash, using care to cover completely, but do not let excess egg drip into the crevices. Sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds if desired.

If you are making the braided challah, transfer the challah to a cornmeal-dusted baking pan. For section challah, place the loaves in 2 well-greased 8 or 9 inch loaf pans. Place in a warm, draft-free area, preferably enclosed, and allow to rise until doubled in size.

Baker's Secret: Before sprinkling with the seeds, allow the egg wash to air-dry, then brush with egg wash a second time. This will give the bread its characteristic shine.

Baking:  Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven until the loaves have a rich mahogany color and emit a hollow sound when tapped lightly on the bottom with your fingertips (35 minutes). If the top begins to brown excessively and the bottom is raw, cover the bread with a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil that has been creased down the center to form a tent. If there is a white line visible between the braids, continue baking until it disappears. To test for doneness, press lightly between the braids on the highest part of the bread; it should be firm. If you feel the creases give when lightly pressed, continue baking until they firm up. Let cool on a wire rack. Challah keeps very well for several days in a plastic bag in a bread box. It can be frozen; defrost slowly, preferably wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

Yields 2 loaves.

Note You can substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour, but the challah will not be as light or tender.

Food Processor: Steel Blade

In the recipe above, instead of 1 cup warm water use:

  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3/4 cup ice water

In the work bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and allow to stand for a few minutes to soften.
Add the ice water, egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, 2 cups of the flour, and the salt; pulse to combine. Add 2 more cups of flour 1 cup at a time. More flour can be added 1/4 cup at a time if necessary. The dough should be firm. Pulse until the dough forms up into a ball, then continue pulsing for 2 to 3 minutes. If the machine strains, divide the dough in half and process each half separately, then knead together by hand. If using a dough thermometer, keep the dough at 78°F to 82°F. Do not over mix. If necessary, knead by hand until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well developed. When you push down, the dough should be firm and push back. Knead together and shape into a ball. Proceed as in Rising, Shaping, and Baking, above.

About Secrets of a Jewish Baker

ImageFor more than 20 years, George Greenstein owned and operated a Jewish bakery in Long Island. In this highly acclaimed cookbook, he reveals the unwritten tips that were passed down in his family through three generations of bakers. With a broad selection of basic breads, authentic New York-style staples, and ethnic favorites, SECRETS OF A JEWISH BAKER covers everything bakers need know to ensure a successful loaf every time.

Get Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World at:

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.

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