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A Six-Strand Braided Challah

This image courtesy of Mark Ferri

This recipe is very special to me and was actually my signature bread at the beginning of my culinary career. Traditionally, in the Jewish religion, braided challah is eaten with dinner every Friday, to celebrate the Sabbath. The woven, knobby shape of the braid is meant to reflect the forever winding and sometimes bumpy road of life. I thought you’d enjoy knowing the easy step-by-step professional formula for making a six-strand braid at home. Since this dough is so easy to work and tastes so great, I seem to keep finding more and more wonderful things to do with it! Following are the directions to make two voluptuous six-strand braided loaves, with or without raisins. I also give a savory herb and cheese variation, which can be used for braids, regular loaves, or to enclose an entire wheel of Brie cheese, which is a real show-stopper on a buffet table.

Notes

Braiding Instructions:



Read the following procedure carefully before beginning, and keep this page opened and within easy view the entire time.

Spread the strands, so they all have some space around them, staying connected on top. Number the position of each strand from 1 to 6, starting at the far left. (No matter how the strands are arranged the numbers stay the same.)

1. Take strand #6 and bring it over to become #1.

2. Strand #2 goes over #6 and becomes #6.

3. Strand #1 goes across and over strand #3 and becomes #3.

4. Strand #5 goes over #1 and becomes #1.

5. Strand #6 crosses over #4 and becomes #4.

6. Repeat steps 2 through 6 until you reach the bottom of the strands.



Here’s the Scoop: On a Kosher Challah, Plain, Sweet, or Savory:

I don’t keep kosher, so I make challah the way I feel it tastes the best, which is with butter and milk. However, strict Jewish dietary law prohibits combining, in the same meal, any foods containing dairy products and meat. To make a kosher challah, you need to make a few adjustments (unless, of course, you plan to serve the original version at a meat-free Sunday brunch or a fish dinner!).

For a parve challah (able to be eaten with either meat or dairy), you need to substitute another fat for the butter. Use either 1/3 cup nonhydrogenated coconut butter  or an equal amount of corn oil, plus extra for brushing, or 1 stick melted nondairy margarine. Instead of cow’s milk, substitute either water, plain soy or rice milk, or if making a savory version, even the reconstituting liquid from dried porcini mushrooms. Because you’ll need to omit the cheese in the savory version, you can punch up the flavor in the bread by using a highly flavored cold-pressed oil like basil oil, instead of the other fats previously mentioned, and add up to ¼ cup minced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.

Timing is Everything:



• The dough can be assembled through the first full rise and, after punching down, placed in the refrigerator for up to two days for the plain or raisin bread and one day for the savory version. Unless making a Brie en croûte, make sure to allow the time required to bring the dough to room temperature before shaping, rising, and baking.

2 large freestanding braids, or two 2-pound brie en croûte, or three 8 × 4-inch loaves

Cooking Methodbaking

CostInexpensive

Total Timehalf-day

Make Ahead RecipeYes

Kid FriendlyYes

OccasionBuffet, Family Get-together

Dietary Considerationhalal, kosher, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free, vegetarian

Mealbrunch

Taste and Texturebuttery, savory, sweet

Type of Dishyeast bread

Ingredients

  • About 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a pinch
  • 1 tablespoon mild-flavored honey
  • 2½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 cups mixed light and dark moist raisins (optional)
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • ½ cup lukewarm water
  • 4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • Up to 6 cups bread flour
  • Medium-ground cornmeal, for sprinkling
  • Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, and/or kosher or sea salt for sprinkling (optional)
  • Glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water

Instructions

  1. Use some of the melted butter to grease the interior of an 8-quart mixing bowl. Set that bowl aside. Warm the milk in a 1-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and add 8 tablespoons of melted butter (stir it before measuring to incorporate the milk solids). Stir in 1/3 cup sugar along with the honey, salt, and the raisins, if using. Let the milk cool to lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of warm water with a pinch of sugar and allow it to become bubbly, about 3 minutes. Add the dissolved yeast to the warm milk mixture, along with the eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon to break up the eggs, then stir in enough flour, cup by cup, to create a somewhat stiff, shaggy mass that’s no longer easily stirred.

  2. Using a sturdy rubber spatula, scrape the mass onto a floured surface and knead it until you’ve created a dough that’s smooth and elastic, adding only as much additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Place the dough into the greased bowl and brush the top with more melted butter. Cover the bowl with greased plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled, 2 to 2½ hours. Uncover the dough and punch it down with several swift swats with the back of your hand. Turn the dough over in the bowl and knead gently to redistribute the yeast. Recover the bowl and let the dough rise again until very light and billowy, 1 to 1½ hours.

  3. To shape braided loaves, first line two large, shallow baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle the paper with cornmeal. Gather your choice of seeds, if using, and place them next to the bowl of glaze. Turn the fully risen dough out onto your lightly floured work surface and divide the dough in half using your pastry scraper. Cover one half while working with the other. (If not working with a double oven, refrigerate half of the dough in its original bowl, covered.)

  4. Divide one half of dough into six equal pieces and roll each piece into a strand about 10 inches long, with tapered ends and slightly chubby centers. (Use extra flour, only as necessary, to keep dough from sticking.) Position the strands vertically in front of you and pinch the ends farthest from you at the top together, attaching them. See Notes for braiding instructions.

  5. When you reach the bottom of the braid, pinch the ends together to secure them. Tuck the ends on both sides underneath the braid, plumping it nicely. Place the braid on one of the prepared baking sheets and cover it with a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise for 30 minutes, preheating the oven to 375 F., for the last 20 minutes of the rise. (If working with a double oven, repeat this same procedure with the remaining half of dough. If not, wait until the first loaf enters the oven to remove the second half from the refrigerator and shape that braid.)

  6. After a 20-minute rise, uncover the braid and brush the dough all over with the egg glaze. Leave the loaf uncovered for the remaining 10 minutes. Just before baking, give the dough another coat of glaze and, if desired, sprinkle the top decoratively with one or more type of the seeds. Sprinkle the top lightly with salt, if desired, and bake the braid(s) until the loaves are golden, feel light, and sound hollow when lifted and tapped on the bottom, 35 to 45 minutes. As the dough bakes it will expand, exposing new, unglazed dough. To prevent uneven browning, check the braids 20 minutes after they enter the oven and, working quickly, brush any whiter parts of dough with some reserved glaze. Quickly sprinkle those sections with some seeds, if using, and continue to bake until done. Cover the top of the braids loosely with aluminum foil (shiny side up) if the loaves begin to become overly brown before being cooked through, uncovering for the last 2 minutes of baking.

  7. Sandwich Loaf:

  8. Brush three 8 × 4-inch loaf pans with melted butter. Go to the Country White Bread recipe, and follow the shaping and rising procedure. Before baking, brush the exposed dough with either melted butter or the egg glaze. If using the glaze, you can then apply some poppy, sesame, or caraway seeds. Bake in a preheated 375°F. oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Turn the loaves out of their pans and let them cool on wire racks before slicing.

  9. Savory Challah:

  10. When assembling the dough, reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons, omit the honey, and add ½ cup-thinly sliced chives and ½ cup room-temperature freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for braids or loaves, or 1 cup cheese when making a Brie en croûte. If making a Brie en croute, after the first 2-hour rise, punch the dough down, cover the bowl, and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours and as long as 24 hours before shaping. If using this savory version to be braided or baked in loaf pans, the dough should be at room temperature. Follow the previous topping instructions.

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