Imagine a cold and cloudy Sunday morning. One where the kitchen floor is cold on your bare feet and you look up at the window to see fine white flakes blowing past a gray city backdrop. It’s a perfect day for staying in and baking something. I usually bake bread around this time of year when the whole family gets together for dinner and holiday parties. Family gatherings are where I first learned the art of making bread from my wife’s father Jack. He was a much more precise and deliberate bread maker than I am, priding himself on exact measurements and repeatable results. He had bread baking and communication skills that I do not… and his bread was truly great.
I am more of a “fly by the seat of my pants” bread maker. I measure… but not so carefully. And I have never weighed anything on a scale as Jack always did when splitting the raw dough into two or more loves. He kept one eye on the clock and one on his watch as he waited for the bread to rise. I use a more flexible method based on whim and guesswork. When the rising bread dough rises above the top of the bowl, I figure it’s time to punch it down. The kids always like to punch down the bread dough. It’s almost as much fun as pushing buttons on an elevator.
The point is there are just as many types of bread bakers as there are types of bread. Don’t be shy about baking bread, even the rare failures provide a rich source of entertaining stories and future family traditions.
The bread I am baking today is called Challah, a traditional Jewish bread that looks and tastes great and is guaranteed to impress your family and friends. They won’t always tell you they are impressed but they will ask you to make more bread.
2 packages active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1-1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons butter
3 large eggs
5-1/2 to 6 cups all purpose flour
1 egg white mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
Proof the yeast by putting it in a cup or bowl with the warm water, a pinch of flour and a pinch of sugar. I do this first and let it get going while I measure out the reset of the ingredients.
Warm the milk and butter gently in a small pot. I cut the butter into pieces but it does not really have to melt completely. You are just warming everything up to keep your yeast happy. You should be able to put your finger in the milk without burning yourself. If it’s too hot for you it will be to hot for the yeast.
Place 5 cups of flour in a large bowl, add the sugar, salt, eggs and warm milk with the butter in it. Mix thoroughly adding flour as needed to thicken the dough. You want it to be sticky but not soupy. When everything is mixed and sticky, sprinkle about a quarter cup of flour on your clean countertop or cutting board to knead in the rest of the flour. This usually takes between five and ten minutes to do and you are basically stretching the dough until it is smooth and elastic.
If you are lucky enough to have an assistant, they will have cleaned out your mixing bowl and rubbed the inside with butter for you. If not you will have to throw a towel over your dough and do it yourself. Work your dough into a ball and then put it in the bowl top first and roll it around so it gets buttered all over and then turn it right side up, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and set it in a warm draft free spot to rise until it doubles in size, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch down the dough! Roll the dough out on you lightly floured surface and divide it in two. Next divide each half into thirds (six pieces total). Roll the thirds into ropes about the diameter of a closet pole (1/14”). Take three ropes and braid them to form one loaf of bread, then do it again for the second loaf which will turn out better than the first loaf. When you get to the end of the braid you just wrap the last rope around and tuck it under the loaf giving it a good pinch to hold it in place.
If you are lucky enough to still have an assistant, they will have already greased two cookie sheets for you and have them ready and waiting for your bread loaves. If not, grease two cookie sheets with shortening or butter and dust with flour or cornmeal. You might be able to get away with one large cookie sheet but two gives you more flexibility. Cover you loaves gently with a clean towel or parchment paper and let them rest until they almost double in size again. Maybe about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Brush the top of your loaves with the egg white mixture and sprinkle with poppy seeds.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until golden brown and loaves sound hollow when tapped. Cool on racks.