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The Ultimate Challah
From Brizel's Bakery and Jack Wayne
This is what I call the ultimate challah. Adapted from Brizel's Bakery in Jerusalem, the bread was perfected with the help of Jack Wayne of West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, who comes from a long line of bakers in Lodz, Poland, once a center of Jewish customs and traditions. Zingerman's Bake House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, makes a variation of this crusty, chestnut-colored loaf and mail-orders it throughout the United States.
When you are making this challah, be sure to perform the mitzvah of setting aside about an ounce of the dough (see note). You can throw it away, or wrap it in aluminum foil as some religious bakers do and place it in the oven. Some people save all these challah-offerings and burn them right before Passover. Then take another piece of dough, fill it with jam as they did in Eastern Europe, and bake it for the hungry adult or child who, smelling the aroma of fresh bread, can't wait for the Sabbath to begin.
This recipe calls for two kinds of flour. Bread flour includes more gluten, helpful in the braiding. However, if you can find only all-purpose flour, use that. It also calls for 1/2 - 3/4 cup of sugar, because I like my challah less sweet than many challah eaters, even in my family! If you are going to use just one loaf, perform another mitzvah -- give away the second. If you are making a month of challahs, as I sometimes do, double the recipe and freeze several just after braiding them. Take them out of the freezer 5 hours before glazing and baking.
Note: Technically, the separation of challah with a blessing, according to the Talmud, refers only to dough using flour that weighs at least 3 pounds 11 ounces. If the flour weighs less than 2 pounds 11 ounces, you do not have to separate the challah at all, and if it weighs more than 2 pounds 11 ounces and less than 3 pounds 11 ounces, you can separate it without a blessing. The challah is usually blessed after the flour, yeast, water, and other ingredients are mixed.
1. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the sugar and the oil and mix well with a whisk or a wooden spoon. Beat in 4 of the eggs, 1 at a time; then gradually stir in the bread flour, 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, and the salt. When you have a dough that holds together, it is ready for kneading.
2. To knead by hand, place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead well, using the heels of your hands to press the dough away and your fingers to bring it back. Continue, turning the dough, for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding the remaining 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour or as needed.
To knead by machine in an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, knead for 5 minutes on medium speed, or until smooth. You can also process half the dough at a time in a food processor fitted with the steel blade; process for about 1 minute.
3. After kneading, place all the dough in a large oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. You can also put the dough in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees for a few minutes and then turned off.
4. When the dough is almost doubled in size, remove it from the bowl and punch it down -- the rougher you are, the more the dough likes it. Return it to the bowl, cover it again and let it rise in a warm place for 30 minutes more. Or, if you have to go out, let the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator several hours or overnight and bring it to room temperature when ready to continue.
Braiding and baking the challah
5. To make a 6-braided challah, take half the dough and form into 6 balls. Roll each ball with your hands into a strand about 14 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Pinch the strands together at one end and then gently spread them into 2 groups of 3.
Next, take the outside right strand over 2 to the middle empty space. Then, take the second strand from the left to the far right. Regroup to 3 on each side. Take the outside left strand over 2 to the middle and the second strand from the right over to the far left. Continue this method until all the strands are braided. The key is to always have 3 strands on each side so that you can keep your braid balanced. Make a second loaf the same way. Place the braided loaves in greased 10- by 4-inch loaf pans or on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
To make loaves symbolizing the 12 shewbread, the consecrated loaves placed on the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem, shape one half of the dough into 12 tight balls and press them together in the bottom of a greased 10- by 4- inch loaf pan. Repeat with the second half of the dough in another pan.
6. Let the challah loaves rise another hour, uncovered. Fifteen minutes before putting the loaves in the oven, beat the remaining egg and brush it gently over them. Five minutes later, lightly brush them again. Then sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds and let dry a few minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the loaves on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 30 minutes more. Turn off the oven and leave the loaves in 5 minutes longer to get a dark-golden crust. Remove and cool on a rack.
Yield: 2 loaves
Braiding note: Practice braiding first with Play-Doh, using strands of different colors.
Variation: Zingerman's Bake House holiday tip
Soak 3/4 cup dark raisins and 1/4 cup yellow raisins in 6 tablespoons dark rum for 1 hour or more. Add the rum-soaked raisins with any leftover rum to the dough after 5 minutes of kneading, adding a few tablespoons more flour to absorb the liquid. If you are using a mixer or food processor, work the raisins in by hand.
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