Recently we had an impromptu pot-luck luncheon at the newspaper’s office. We swapped stories, we laughed, we ate some awesome food and we learned that the new guy, Tavis, can make a mean pound cake. From scratch.
The whole thing began with some friendly teasing that our general manager, Christine, is always posting recipes online, but that none of us have ever tasted her cooking. She finally relented and agreed to bring in this chicken/vegetable/ramen crockpot full of deliciousness into the newsroom.
Because I knew she was bringing soup, I offered to bake a loaf of challah to go with it. As I was pulling out the ingredients to get started, I realized I couldn’t remember how to make it.
Challah is a traditional Jewish egg bread that’s served at literally every Shabbos dinner and holiday with the obvious exception of Passover.
I have made countless loaves of challah over the years, but since our boys have been born, my husband and I haven’t been as observant as we once were. Friday night Shabbos dinners have been replaced with high school football games and the synagogue hasn’t seen us at a Saturday morning service since … I don’t know… too long.
After I dug out my old recipe and deciphered the spidery handwritten Yiddish text, it all came back fairly quickly. I finished the loaf without issue and took the bread into work the following day where it was scarfed down by my esteemed colleagues.
It occurred to me that with the holiday season right around the corner, I should share my recipe. You certainly don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy a nice loaf of challah. Trust me when I say that it’s one of the better “traditional” Jewish recipes. You’ll notice no one ever shares their favorite gelfite fish dish …
As I have never written a cook book before, bear with me.
Gather, gather …
1 cup of water
1/4 cup butter
3½ cups bread flour
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 packages of active dry yeast
1½ tsp. salt
In a small sauce pan, melt the butter in the water. You want this hot, but not boiling so you don’t kill the yeast. Find a large mixing bowl. In fact, find two because you’re going to need the second one in a minute. In the large bowl dump in two cups of the flour, both sugars, yeast and salt and whisk it all up. Pour the hot buttery water over it and mix with a sturdy wooden spoon. (I say “sturdy” because this dough is going to get really thick and I have snapped many a spoon handle. Dollar store spoons won’t cut it — you have been warned.)
Add two of the eggs and keep on stirring. Add the remaining one and a half cups of flour a half cup at a time. You can’t rush greatness. Keep stirring. At some point, all of this ridiculous amount of stirring will turn the dough into a ball. Not a perfect ball, but sort of a congealed lump, which I promise will taste better than it sounds. Can you use an electric mixer? No. That’s cheating.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and start kneading. This is probably the most important part. It’s going to be a sticky mess at first — hope you took your rings off. Keep kneading and sprinkling the dough with flour until some sort of culinary magic happens and the dough becomes soft, stretchy and smooth in texture. At this point it’s actually kind of fun to play with. It usually takes 10 minutes or so.
Now grab that second bowl and pour some olive oil in the bottom. Drop in your big ole’ ball of dough and flip it around a couple of times to cover it. You want it coated in oil, but not swimming in it. (If you’re out of olive oil, vegetable or canola will work fine.) Cover the bowl with a damp towel and stick it in a warm place to rise for one hour. Set the bowl on a heating pad if you’re like me and your husband keeps the house at sub-zero temperatures. The yeast needs a warm environment to do its thing.
After an hour the dough should have doubled in size. Punch it down and divide it in half. Take one of the balls and divide it into six little balls. Did I mention this recipe makes two loaves? I probably should have said that.
Take one of the mini balls and roll it into a rope about 12 inches long. Remember when you used to make snakes with Play-doh as a kid? Same process. Now do that to the other five balls. Here comes the intimidating part: you’re going to make a six-stranded braid. I promise it’s easier than it sounds.
Take the six ropes and lay them out vertically. Pinch the top. Deep breath, you can do this. Now, starting at the far left and working right, pick up the rope and lay it over two, under one, over two. That’s it. Go back to the left and do it again: over two, under one, over two. Keep doing it until you run out of rope and then pinch the end to seal it. Bam. Now just go back and repeat all that with the other half of the dough. Place those suckers on a greased cookie sheet and let them rise (uncovered) for another 45 minutes.
Once your loaves are all puffy again, whisk up that last egg and (lightly!) brush it on the risen loaves. Now drop those puppies into a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes and you’re good to go. They come out golden brown and should sound hollow when you knock on them. Added bonus? Your house will smell amazing.
There you have it. Elegant, scrumptious and best of all, you don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Julia Child to do it. This recipe serves (roughly) a million people so remember to wrap the leftovers up in plastic and use them in a day or two because there’s no preservatives in there.
Even better? The next day, tear up the loaf and make baked French toast with it. Or bread pudding. Or stuffing. How do you make baked French toast? Well, that’s another column …
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Easley Progress, The Pickens Sentinel and Powdersville Post and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.