holla for challah

The ability to braid one's hair is a skill most people have. The ability to braid one's bread dough? A completely different story. With the number of times that I've rocked a side braid, regular braid, french braid, french pigtails .... you'd think braiding dough was easier. But, it was seriously worth it. I mean, check out that loaf up there.

This past weekend my friends Dave and Lara celebrated their 30th birthday with their friends and family. It was an amazing afternoon gathering filled with some seriously great food. Not that it's a competition, but it's hard to compete with the spread they put out at a party. But the real trump card they have is their handsome baby Walter. You know when people say "oh that is the happiest baby ever!", well Walter is quite literally the happiest baby that I have ever seen. There is just no competition.

My mom always taught me to never show up empty handed to a house ... and I try to really abide by this whenever possible. Since Dave and Lara clearly didn't need help with the menu, I turned my attention to Walter. From the family's tumblr feed, I knew that baby loved himself some challah bread.

Challenge accepted.

Challah bread is not complicated to make. But it is heavy and awkward in an unexpected way. I "whipped" up the dough on Friday before heading out for some light socializing at the MFA. Yep, I'm fancy like that. Leaving the house while the dough rises is perfect because I obsessively check it and see how much it has risen.

When I got back from the MFA, I made some quick work of the dough and turned it into two loafs. One for Walter and one for me. I'm not challah expert but Lara and Water gave me a thumbs up for the end result. Also, it makes great french toast.

Here's how it goes.

(Step 1) Put 1 cup warm water in a small bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of sugar, sprinkle the yeast over top, swirl the bowl just to combine, and leave it to proof for five minutes.

(Step 2) While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, 1/4 cup of sugar and cardamom, if using, in a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.) Stir to incorporate or blend on low speed.

(Step 3) In a medium bowl, mix remaining water, honey, oil, and eggs.

(Step 4) When yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, immediately followed by wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon or on medium-low speed in the mixer, just until combined.

(Step 5) Switch to dough hook and begin to knead on low speed, making sure to incorporate what's at the bottom of the bowl if the dough hook misses it. Knead dough for about 10 minutes by hand or about 5 minutes with the machine.

(Step 6) Split the dough into two equal pieces. Set each in a large oiled bowl, cover both bowls with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size. Rough rise estimates? According to the recipe I followed, white flour = 2-2.5 hours. Whole wheat= 3.5-4 hours.

(Step 7) Preheat oven to 375.

(Step 8) After the rise, the dough should be soft and pliable. Work one loaf at a time. Separate each mound of dough into three equal balls. Roll each ball into a log almost 1-foot long. Braid the logs together to create your loaf. Tip: For the nicest-looking braid, do not pinch the top edges of your logs together before braiding; simply place one log over the next and braid until you reach the bottom. This allows you to readjust the top of the braid and make it a bit tighter if necessary. Then flip the loaf upside down on your baking sheet (cover with silpat, tinfoil, whatever). Then tuck the ends of the braid under securely.

(Step 9) Put each loaf on its own silpat-lined baking sheet. If using eggwash, mix yolk with a 1 tablespoon water and 1 tablespoon honey. Brush over loaves.

(Step 10) Hopefully you aren't in a rush because it is very much worth it to let the dough get a second rise before popping it in the oven. Any time you can give is great. I was originally planning on doing just 15 minutes but lost track of time eating gingersnaps.

(Step 11) Bake at 375 degrees for 20-22 minutes. Note. My bread was literally done after 12 minutes ... I'm not sure why so keep an eye on your loaf. You'll know it's done by the color.

That's it. Give it to your favorite baby and then make yourself some French Toast. You won't regret it.

Adapted from this recipe

Shopping List
1 1/2 cup warm water, divided
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar, divided
2 tablespoons instant yeast
6 cups flour -- either all white or half white whole wheat
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup mild honey, plus an extra tablespoon for eggwash, if desired
2/3 cups flavorless vegetable or canola oil
4 eggs, plus one yolk for eggwash, if desired
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

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