During my time in New York, I made almost weekly visits to B&H Vegetarian Restaurant in the East Village. The restaurant is a tiny hole in the wall with just enough room for a long counter and four tables, and it’s been around for over sixty years. The place is one of the last remnants of what used to be the East Village, a place teeming with immigrants and working class folks, rather than wealthy models and college students (can you tell I’m a little jaded?). One of their staples there is freshly made challah, which is served with every dish you order. Butter is spread on each piece, and refills of the fluffy goodness are endless and free. Unfortunately, this is the only place I’ve ever eaten fresh challah, despite my Eastern European roots. So today, A and I embarked on our first attempt to create our very own challah. The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen and whew, it was a lot of waiting around for the dough to rise and bake. I literally just pulled it out of the oven and am now eating my first bites of butter slathered challah. It’s not quite as good as B&H’s (missing a little of the white fluffiness), but it’s still heavenly.
Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising (with all the rising and baking, this is pretty time confusing, be forewarned)
Yield: 2 loaves
Important Note: I would use more sugar next time, as both A and my mom noticed that it lacked sweetness. Also, make sure you place the rack right in the middle of the oven. If you put it down any lower, the challah will cook too much.
1 1/2 packages active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon table salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading (Smitten Kitchen warns against using a Kitchen Aid, which is messy and too complicated for this).
3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. I had never kneaded before (I guess this demonstrates my aversion to baking), so A and I watched a tutorial online to show you how. It was difficult to knead everything together, so we broke the dough up into three balls and kneaded them one at a time. When done, we combined the three balls into one and kneaded it a few more times (you can see a picture of the three balls before combined above).
4. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off.
5. After 1 hour, punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
6. As the dough sits, plump your raisins. I also didn’t know what plumping is, but I’m so glad I learned, because it seems quite a useful tool if you use raisins a lot, which I do.
7. Take out the challah and knead the raisins into the dough, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between. If you can, have someone read these instructions to you as you braid - it will make it a lot easier!
8. Beat remaining egg and brush 1/2 of it on loaves. Save the rest. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.
9. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again with remaining beaten egg. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
10. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.
11. Butter, butter, butter. Don’t forget to butter your slices! Or make french toast. Or drop a piece in your soup. Or make a sandwich. The possibilities are deliciously infinite.
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