Happy Six Months Between the Layers! - No. 53
And Sara’s surprisingly easy challah recipe
Last week marked half a year writing this newsletter! It’s been such a crazy, wonderful experience filled with deadlines and discoveries. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts. And because I’m always ready to celebrate a milestone, here’s an offer for free subscribers who might like to move up to paid. When you become a paid subscriber, you hear from me twice a week. The holidays are upon us, so if ever we need trusted recipes, it’s now!
I’m reminded by the people I interview and by you (!) that baking isn’t as difficult as we think, and it makes life more interesting. Today’s recipe and story is a delicious example. Enjoy!
MALCOLM GLADWELL MUST HAVE BEEN THINKING OF making bread when he wrote in his book Outliers you need 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something.
That’s precisely what has kept many of us away from bread baking. Practice may make perfect, but it’s finding the time or a foolproof recipe that stops us.
And that’s where my college friend Sara Franco and the pandemic come in. Sara and I lived doors away our freshman year at the University of Georgia and hadn’t seen each other in decades when we reconnected in Asheville, NC, about six years ago. A conversation there sparked an email that turned into a bread recipe that helped my family learn to make homemade bread last year.
With Sara’s cherished challah recipe, bread flour my husband found by sheer chance, and yeast I spotted in a grocery I seldom frequent, our family was able to Zoom-bake challah, from Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta to Jacksonville to Winston-Salem. Afterwards, we shared photos of our glossy loaves, and our houses smelled warm and fragrant.
Kinda miss those days…
Taking the mystique out of challah
Challah is the braided yeast bread usually served on Fridays in Jewish households and baked in a round for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize the circle of life. It is rich and moist, somewhat like brioche, but made with oil instead of butter.
My friend Sara loved challah, but she always bought it. Until a bread machine arrived.
I baked my first challah almost 20 years ago. My son was eating it homemade at a friend’s home, and I was buying it.
And as you may know, family isn’t always subtle about gifts. So when Sara received a bread machine that next Mother’s Day, she took it to heart.
I just wanted to be good at making my own challah. I took lessons from Doris Koplin, the gold standard of challah in Atlanta, and the recipe I use today is originally from Maggie Glezer who wrote a book on challah. I’ve made it for friends and my children’s weddings, just to get good at it. I practiced a lot. I took the mystique out of it.
And we are so glad she did!
Challah is a forgiving dough and I’m all about forgiveness
Sara’s recipe was so doable for me I wanted to share it with my daughters and my sister-in-law and my sister and her daughter-in-law because they were eager to learn how to make bread. And don’t think this recipe is gender specific. The guys were invited, too, but no takers. Just eaters!
Let me begin by saying challah dough is forgiving. It’s just a really nice texture and easy to work with and feels good in your hands.
Getting the flour right is probably the second most important thing about making challah and all yeast breads. The first is not killing the yeast, but you should be ok as long as your liquids aren’t over 130 degrees F.
Sara’s recipe works for bakers with little experience because she gives both cup and gram measurements for the flour. Sara will tell you weighing flour is more precise, and I agree.
But if you don’t have a digital scale and are spooning it into cups to measure, just don’t add all the flour at once. Hold back about 1/4 cup just to make sure you need it all. Too much flour results in a dry bread. Add the remaining 1/4 cup if needed to mix and then knead a dough that feels, as Sara says, smooth and soft as “a baby’s tooshie.”
The challah mantra: Rise, braid, rise, then bake
I like to let challah rise at the back of my stove, a warm spot in my kitchen. And in other houses of my life, I’ve let bread dough rise in a sunny spot in an upstairs bedroom or have placed it in a turned-off dishwasher - you can get creative when you have to.
Where do you place bread to rise? Any bread baking tricks you’d like to share?
And then you give the risen dough perhaps the most gratifying punch in the face - you really do punch it down in the bowl with your fist. Then divide it in two, either by eye or more precisely using a scale. That way, you will make two challah, one to keep and the other to gift or freeze. Or, you can bake one long challah. It’s really up to you.
Sara divides each half of the dough into thirds, again eyeballing or weighing. She rolls out each third into a rope about 12 to 15 inches long.
Did I tell you that the beauty of Sara’s recipe is that it’s easy to work with? You will love this process. A little flour on the counter, but otherwise, smooth sailing…
And with those ropes lined up in front of you, begin at the mid-point of those ropes - crucial step for a perfectly even braid! - and begin the left over right, right over left, as if you are braiding hair. The recipe below explains this in better detail.
Then carefully place your braided loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet or on a parchment paper lined pan, and place back in that warm place, lightly covered with a kitchen towel, until nearly doubled. Then set your oven.
Sara brushes the risen loaves with a little beaten egg before baking. This is where you can sprinkle on poppy seeds or sesame seeds and bake until a toothpick easily pulls out of the center.
I like to use my handy Thermapen instant-read digital thermometer to determine when a loaf of bread is done. I’ve gotten better at sticking it into the underside of a loaf so you can’t see the hole it makes, but it’s very accurate because bread is cooked at 200 degrees F, give or take some degrees depending on the type of bread.
Don’t let the braids stop you: Challah baked in a loaf pan or turned into cinnamon rolls
What Sara and I both love about this recipe is that it’s so versatile.
At our house, we made hamburger buns out of it and loaves that weren’t braided, perfect for gifting. We made dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls.
But the best thing about Sara’s challah is slicing and eating it, buttered or plain, drizzled with honey or spread with jam. And turning it into French toast.
A close second just might be making it. The ritual. Working on those practice hours.
This Thursday for Subscribers:
Did you think I’d let Halloween come and go and not share our family’s favorite PUMPKIN BREAD recipe? Recipe revealed on Thursday for subscribers. Go ahead and buy some canned pumpkin. It’s so delicious, so festive, perfect for Halloween! And because we are coming up on the end of the month that means…a giveaway! The October subscriber giveaway is an autographed copy of my book Skillet Love where you will find how to bake Sara’s challah in the shape of a wreath in a cast-iron skillet. It’s a beauty!
Sara Franco’s Challah
I feel like I’ve covered the playbook in making Sara’s challah, but if you have any further questions, you know you can leave a comment and ask a question. One thing about bread baking - never be ashamed to ask for help because there are so many wonderful bread bakers out there who are eager to pass along what they know. Sara included! And Sara says that if you don’t like the look of your braid, you can unbraid and start over, but you need to let the dough rest and recover on the counter for 20 minutes before rebraiding.
Makes 2 loaves
Prep: 25 to 30 minutes
Rise: 1 hour, 30 to 45 minutes
Bake: 35 to 40 minutes
3/4 cup warm water
1 package (.25 ounces; 2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups (500 grams) bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 large egg
Poppy or sesame seeds, if desired
Place the warm water in a large bowl and whisk in the yeast to dissolve. Whisk in the sugar. Add the 2 beaten eggs and oil, and whisk to combine. Add nearly all the flour (holding back 1/4 cup) and salt, and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the remaining flour as needed to pull the dough together in one mass. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and place it in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch down the dough in the bowl with your fist, knead it a little with floured hands until the dough is smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Divide the dough in half. Divide each half into 3 pieces.
Working with one set of 3 pieces of dough at a time, roll each piece of dough between your palms or on the counter until it is a rope, about 12- to 15-inch inches long. Lay the 3 ropes side by side. Beginning at the center, braid them, left over right, right over left, until you reach the ends, and tuck them under. Turn the braid 180 degrees to braid the other half in the same fashion. Place this braided loaf on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining set of 3 pieces of dough, braiding them from the center, turning, braiding again, then placing this braided loaf on the pan. (Or, if not braiding the loaves, don’t divide each half into three parts. Place each in lightly greased 9-inch loaf pans.
Cover the loaves with a kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly beat the egg for the glaze in a small bowl. Brush the bread with the beaten egg, and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds, if desired. Place in the oven.
Bake the challah until it is golden brown, about 20 minutes, and tent with aluminum foil. Continue baking 15 to 20 minutes more, or until it tests done. Remove it to a rack to cool completely, about 1 hour, then slice and serve. To store, wrap in foil, for up to five days. Or freeze for up to six months.
Have a Happy Halloween!