Happy Challah-days: How to Master the Ultimate Braided Loaf

By | July 12, 2016

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats]

With its stretchy, fluffy, yolk-yellow crumb and its stylish braid, challah is a fundamentally luxurious bread. Whether you’re making the perfect chicken salad sandwich, whipping up some French toast, or commemorating the history of your people with a loaf imbued with extravagant symbolism, chances are challah won’t just do the trick—it may be the only bread that will satisfy your craving.

While you may not have trouble finding good challah at your local bakery, there are some compelling reasons to bake the iconic loaf yourself. For starters, it can be made easily in any home kitchen, with any experience level, in just a few hours, with delicious results. And most likely, if you’re taking on this project, you’re doing it out of passion and indulgence, food and labor costs be damned. Given its exceptionally high proportion of egg yolks, this particular challah recipe is considerably richer than profit margins would allow for in any bakery, and let me tell you—that’s a very good thing.

But what is challah exactly, and what makes it different from other sweet, enriched breads? Why does it contain so many eggs, and why does it have that flashy, glossy braided face? I’ll take you through a little bit of history, and a not-too-convoluted chunk of chemistry, to make sense of it all.

Challah, Defined

Challah is a ceremonial Jewish bread of Eastern European origin, typically shaped as a braid and eaten as part of dinner on Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath). As with many foods, a high fat content is largely responsible for challah’s notoriously moist and fluffy crumb. But its role in usually meat-based celebratory meals means that, in accordance with kosher laws calling for the separation of meat and dairy, challah contains no milk or butter. Instead, egg yolks and oil provide all of the dough’s fat.

Challah is known for more than just its richness, though: Its woven strands also make it one of the most instantly recognizable breads on a bakery shelf. Though a long braid is probably its best-known iteration, and the one I’ll walk you through here, it comes in all shapes and sizes, many specific to a particular event or circumstance. For the Jewish New Year, challah is shaped into a spiraled round, symbolizing the continuity of time and history, and the meeting of a beginning and an end. For large celebrations, such as weddings, the loaves can be made with 12 strands to represent the unity of the 12 tribes of Israel. For Passover…well, challah isn’t even allowed because it’s so good that it would interfere with our sociocultural processing of historical hardship. But after Passover, challah is sometimes shaped like a key to represent opportunity, and just how totally tasty escaping oppression can be.

Now, let’s talk a little chemistry.

The Science of Enrichment

Challah is what bakers refer to as an enriched dough, which includes any and all yeast-risen bread doughs that are more than 10% fat and/or sugar. The fat is most typically added in the form of milk and butter, as in brioche and croissants, but egg yolks and oil, such as we’ll be adding here, are also commonly used. Meanwhile, sugar can be added in the form of granulated sugar, maple syrup, malt, or, in the case of my challah, honey. These enrichers affect both the flavor and the texture of the dough, and those effects become more significant as the quantities increase.

The presence of fats and sugars is what separates enriched doughs from what we call lean doughs—such as what you’d use for a simple crusty white bread—which gain their flavor exclusively from the fermentation of grain.

On Fat

Adding fat to dough can have a major impact on its fermentation process and the character of the final loaves. How, you ask? Let me count the ways:

  • Fats tenderize dough. As the dough is mixed, fat molecules coat the gluten matrix, essentially lubricating it. During baking, this prevents the starches and glutens from gelating as they would in a lean dough, effectively interrupting the development of the stubborn chewiness so prized in rustic sourdoughs. The tenderness created by added fat is what makes doughs like challah so ideal for use as burger and hot dog buns.
  • Fats help dough taste fresher longer. Because fats are impermeable to air, high-fat breads are better at retaining moisture, retarding the staling effects of evaporation. Plus, molds and other micro critters don’t much like eating fats. In this recipe, I prefer to use light (i.e., non-extra-virgin) olive oil for flavor, and because it’s relatively unprocessed, but any light oil should do.
  • Fats flavor dough. Whether you’re adding cream and butter or eggs and olive oil to your dough, the flavor will be evident, so the quality of your ingredients matters. Since egg yolks are what gives challah its rich, custardy flavor and color, make sure to select fresh eggs.
  • Fats interfere with gluten development. Enriched doughs often contain much more yeast than lean doughs, in order to help you manage rising time and achieve full volume. To accommodate this extra yeast, enriched doughs have to be mixed more aggressively to ensure sufficient gluten structure to withstand and contain the added internal pressure.

On Sugar

Like fats, sweeteners can have some profound effects on both fermentation and flavor in doughs. Here are a few examples:

  • Sugar aids in rising and fermentation. Rising is the most dramatic physical change that a dough undergoes on account of yeast activity—and it relies heavily on sugars. Enzymes in the dough called amylases break down the flour’s starches into simpler sugars, which yeast readily devours. That yeast, in turn, produces acid, alcohol, and carbon dioxide, which are collectively responsible for the flavor and leavening of your loaf. Adding sugar directly to a dough gives yeast instant access to food—no waiting on the amylase. The yeast works faster and longer, causing the bread to rise more quickly and forcefully.
  • Sugars flavor bread. Obviously, they make them sweet. What kind and degree of sweetness you like should determine how much and what variety you use. Like maple syrup? Go ahead and substitute it for the honey in my recipe. Like raw sugar? Then go raw. Worried about calories? Use less sugar. However, be warned that artificial sweeteners will not impact the rising process the way that true sugars will. Yeasts want what they want, and Sweet’N Low is never on the menu. If you’re making challah, go for the real thing.
  • Sugars color the crust. Sugar-breakdown reactions during crust formation are what gives enriched breads like challah their signature soft, golden-brown exteriors. But take care: Sweetened doughs are almost invariably baked at lower temperatures, typically in the 300–400°F (149–204°C) range, in order to prevent those sugars from burning.
  • Sugars preserve bread. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts water on a molecular level. This improves moisture retention in the dough. If used in excess, though, sugar can compete with yeast and flour for water in the dough, requiring skilled adjustments to the formula.
  • Sugar tenderizes dough after baking. Like fat, sugar meddles with gluten formation and with crumb gelation. Because of this, sugar-rich doughs remain soft and pliant after baking. The flip side is that sweet doughs require extra mixing to achieve full gluten development.

The demonstration below will show you how to shape a four-strand braid—an approach that produces loaves that are both really pretty and the least amount of work. We’ll talk our way through how to scale, mix, bulk-ferment, braid, proof, and then bake this iconic loaf of bread.

Scale Your Ingredients

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Most non-baking recipes just give you ingredient measurements, but when it comes to bread-making, percentages are key. Below, you’ll find the baker’s formula for challah, with the measurements needed to make two hearty loaves. You may be tempted to halve the recipe, but a double batch will make the time and effort more rewarding and worthwhile—plus, that extra loaf will get even better for French toast, stuffing, or bread pudding as it stales. If you do decide to adjust how much you make, though, just remember that baker’s percentages are based on ratios, not finite amounts, which makes scaling a recipe up or down far easier. Some days at work, I need to make two loaves of this bread; some days, I might need a dozen. Memorizing the ratios in a formula allows me to easily make the amount of bread I want. Additionally, if we think of bread recipes as formulas in this way, it’s easier to compare different kinds of bread based on how much of each ingredient is present relative to the others—regardless of how many loaves we’re making at once.

Ingredient Weight (grams) Baker’s %
Flour 1,000 100%
Whole eggs (cold) 270 27%
Egg yolks (cold) 230 23%
Water (cold) 150 15%
Honey 100 10%
Light olive or vegetable oil 90 9%
Sugar 50 5%
Kosher salt 30 3%
Active dry yeast 10 1%
Total 1,910 191%

Start by scaling your water, sugar, and yeast in a small bowl. Regular dry yeast will need to rest for 10 to 15 minutes in order to activate; if you’re using the active dry yeast called for in this recipe, though, there is no need to activate it separately. Next, weigh out the whole eggs, egg yolks, and oil in the bowl of your stand mixer. In a separate bowl, scale your dry ingredients—the flour and salt—then add the honey on top of either bowl. My preference has always been to scale wets, drys, and eggs separately in case of a scaling error or irregularity. Having your ingredients partitioned from the outset makes corrections and problem solving all the much easier. If feeling bold, you can scale everything directly into your mixer bowl, but will want to make sure your wet ingredients are on the bottom to expedite incorporation.

It’s important to note that the action of mixing will warm the dough, so I usually opt for coldish water and eggs to counterbalance that effect, keeping the dough temperature at or below 75°F (24°C). In a chilly kitchen, that won’t be necessary, so aim for room-temperature water and eggs (about 70°F; 21°C). That said, you don’t want dough that’s warmer than 80°F (27°C), as this will compromise flavor due to decreased fermentation time.

The Mix

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When you’re ready to begin, combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and start mixing on low (speed 2 on a KitchenAid stand mixer).

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Continue mixing until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, about 10 minutes, pausing to scrape the bowl and hook every three minutes. Frequent scraping will help keep both the dough and the mixer from overheating along the way, so don’t skip it. In a warm kitchen, periodically use a digital thermometer to make sure the dough temperature doesn’t exceed 80°F. If the dough temp hits 80°F, pull the dough from the mixer immediately, and set it to rise as described below. Similarly, if your mixer begins to overheat, pull the dough from the mixer, and finish kneading by hand.

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Once the dough begins to pull cleanly away from the sides of the bowl, turn it onto a lightly floured, food-safe surface, and briefly knead it by hand to ensure that it feels elastic, smooth, and stretchy—no more than three minutes.

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Shape your dough into a ball, and place it, seam side down, in a lightly oiled bowl—I like to use the bowl of my stand mixer to minimize dishwashing. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and place it in a warm spot (ideally around 75°F) to rise. In colder weather, it can help to set your oven to a low 200°F (93°C) and place your dough to rise near the air vent, making sure not to put it on any surface that is noticeably hot. We want to gently warm the dough, not par-cook it.

Set a timer for one hour from now. Until then, you can busy yourself with something else—it’s time for fermentation. (Suggested activities include using your leftover egg whites for a beautifully fluffy Angel Food Cake or another of our many egg white recipes, cleaning your room, or eating lunch.)

Ferment and Fold

The bulk fermentation period is when our yeast will do the majority of its work, helping the dough gain both flavor (from ethanol and other by-products) and structure (as our gluten network becomes more organized and inflated with carbon dioxide). This process should take roughly two hours, with a pause for folding in the middle. Keep in mind that fermentation is extremely temperature- and moisture-sensitive: A warmer dough will rise faster than colder dough, so check in on your dough regularly but try not to fuss with it too much. If your kitchen or your dough is colder than 75°F, the bulk rise may take longer than two hours; under these conditions, move the dough close to a warm oven, as described above. If your kitchen or dough is significantly warmer than 75°F (say, 80°F or higher), the bulk fermentation may take less than two hours; you’ll then want to move the dough to a more temperate setting.

Halfway through the bulk fermentation, when your one-hour timer goes off, you’ll need to fold and de-gas the dough. Folding helps develop gluten, improves crumb structure, and regulates the dough’s temperature and rise. You can read more about the science of fermenting bread right here.

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Due to the relative stiffness of this dough, and to achieve a uniform crumb, you’ll want to fold and de-gas the dough somewhat aggressively. To fold the dough, flip the mass inside the bowl so that the bottom surface is facing you. Fold the top portion of the dough firmly into the middle. Next, fold the bottom portion of the dough into the center of the mass. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, and perform the same motions—top to middle, bottom to middle, pressing firmly each time you fold to de-gas. Finally, flip the entire mass so that the seam is now facing the bottom of the bowl, and press down firmly, as before, leaving a handprint in the otherwise smooth, taut surface. After folding, return the dough to the area of the kitchen where it was rising.

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After another hour, the folded dough should have risen by almost two-thirds, you should see no trace of your handprint, and a gentle but prodding finger should leave a mark that just barely rebounds. If your poke rebounds immediately, allow the dough to continue to bulk-ferment for another 15 minutes, and test again.

The Strands

Once your dough can pass the poke test, turn it onto a very lightly floured surface, and divide it into eight even portions of about 230 grams each—four portions for each loaf. Don’t stress over individual grams, but remember that the more precisely divided the pieces are, the more even your braids will be. If you need to re-portion the segments of dough, place any scraps on the top surface of the pieces—once the loaf is braided, they’ll be invisible, guaranteeing smooth, even strands.

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Once you have eight equal pieces of dough, it’s time to pre-shape the strands. Gently press each portion into a rough rectangle, fold the top edge to the center, and then repeat with the bottom edge to form a tube.

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Seal with your fingertips to ensure each piece remains cylindrical. Repeat for all eight pieces, and set to rest for 15 minutes, covering them with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. This resting period lets the gluten network relax, which will allow us to stretch these pieces into strands and braid them without the risk of tearing.

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Using gentle pressure, roll each portion back and forth beneath your palms to elongate it into a 14-inch strand, applying more pressure toward the ends to form a tapered shape. This, in turn, will create the curvature of the final loaves. Set the strands aside and cover them with plastic as you finish each one.

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If a portion turns out a little short, or resistant to stretching, cover it and set it aside to rest while you finish the remaining dough.

The Braid

Braiding can be pretty fun once you get the hang of it, but for beginners, it can also make challah especially intimidating. It really doesn’t have to be. Remember as you’re doing this that everyone’s first challah is a little goofy-looking. Braiding is a skill that works best once it becomes muscle memory, the algorithms forgotten.

Anyone who’s ever worn pigtails should be able to rock a three-strand braid. If the four-strand braid seems like too much to wrap your head around, feel free to start with a three-strander instead.

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On a flour-dusted work surface, begin by taking four of your strands and arranging them like spokes extending from the center of a wheel. (Keep the remaining four strands covered in plastic while you work on braiding the first loaf.) Take the four ends farthest from you (mirroring the image above) and bring them together, squeezing to make a seam. To help create tension in the braid, place a small weight on the seam you’ve just created from the four ends—a jam jar, science weight, stapler, or large, flat root vegetable will do just fine.

Mentally number the four strands, from left to right, as strand 1 through strand 4.

Move strand 1 from the far left to the middle. Move strand 3 from its starting position to the far left. Move strand 4 from the far right to the middle. Move strand 2 from its starting position to the far right. Move strand 3 from the far left position to the middle. Move strand 1 from its current position to the far left. Move strand 2 from the far right to the middle. Move strand 4 from its current position to the far right.

Stop and breathe. With each strand back in its starting position, you’ve just completed one full round of braiding. From here, the pattern repeats itself: 1 to middle, 3 to far left, 4 to middle, 2 to far right, 3 to middle, 1 to far left, 2 to middle, 4 to far right.

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In order to get a nice, tall braid, pull gently on each of the strands at the beginning of the braid to make a tightly knit pattern. As you approach the middle, release tension. As you approach the end, reapply tension to match the beginning of the braid.

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Squeeze the ends together to seal them, then place the loaf diagonally on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone pan liner, with one end in the corner and the other reaching the middle of the opposite side. Repeat the whole process for your second loaf, and set it alongside the first, leaving as much room as possible between the two to ensure even proofing and baking.

Finally, once both loaves are set to proof, prepare an egg wash by whisking one whole egg with a splash of water. Using a pastry brush, gently egg-wash the surface of the braided loaf, but avoid the nooks and crannies. Egg-washing the “joints” of the braid will inhibit the loaf’s rise, keeping it from heroically swelling up during baking. A good challah should look like Bruce Banner becoming The Hulk, muscles exploding, about to kick some ass.

The Proof

With all that noise out of the way—mixing, check!; bulk fermentation, check!; pre-shaping, rolling, braiding, and egg-washing, check!—things get a lot easier.

Proofing is the final rise that occurs after shaping, and it takes around two hours, assuming a moderately warm kitchen (about 75°F). To help things along, I preheat my oven to 375°F (190°C)—no convection, oven rack adjusted to the lower-middle position—and leave my rising loaves in the orbit of the warmth provided. I also egg-wash my challah twice more during this time, at 40-minute intervals—this keeps the loaves from drying out, helps them rise, and promotes crust color.

During this time, your loaves should nearly double in size. Be careful to keep them protected from drafts, which will inhibit volume by drying out the exterior. Don’t overdo it with the egg wash, as too much will cause off flavors in the baked loaves. If your kitchen is drafty or colder than 70°F, cover the loaves with plastic wrap to prevent drying.

The Bake

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Before baking, check to make sure your loaves have risen adequately by using the poke test. If a gentle poke leaves a mark, then you’re ready to bake. If your loaves feel firm and your fingerprint doesn’t take, allow them another 15 minutes of rising time, then check again. If your loaves feel ready and look nice earlier, follow your gut and bake them.

Ensuring that your oven rack is in the lower-middle position, with a minimum of 10 inches of clearance on top, place the loaves gently in the oven. As soon you close the oven door, reduce the heat to 325°F (163°C) and bake for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, turn the loaves 180 degrees and bake for 20 minutes more, being careful not to jostle them during the rotation.

When the loaves are finished, the crust on the ridges of the braid should be a rich golden brown, with the joints of the braids a lighter shade of yellow-brown. An oven thermometer should show an internal temperature of 200°F (93°C). You should also perform the thump test.

Using a towel to protect your hand from the heat, gently pick up each loaf, and, with your knuckle, tap on the center of the loaf’s bottom surface. The crust should feel firm, and the tapping should yield a hollow thumping sound, like tapping on a wooden box. If the loaves sound dense, and you don’t hear a clear, hollow knock, continue baking another five minutes and test again.

If the loaves are done, transfer them to a wire cooling rack, and allow them to cool for at least one hour before slicing. Do not, I repeat, do not cut into the loaves right out of the oven, as you will do irreparable damage to the loaves’ crumb structure. Patience is a virtue; wait and you will be rewarded.

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Be proud. You did it. This is one of the first types of bread I ever baked, and has continued to be one of the most gratifying to make. And, with patience and practice, there’s no question that you can make a challah that’s better than anything you’ll buy in a store.

Good luck, and happy Hanukkah. Eat bread. Make sandwiches and toast. Share with friends.

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