Ah the bread that really kicked our bakery into the public eye.
"What the heck is challah, anyway?" I'm glad you asked; it's a Jewish enriched bread, used for celebrating Shabbat. "But Dianaaaaa, you're not Jewish." Yes, I know, but I had a wonderful Jewish neighbor who shared this recipe with me when we lived in Denver, and I tweaked it when we moved here (her recipe worked better at much higher elevations, so I had to fix it for a good 1,000+ mile drop in elevation). I loved the bread so much that I had to share it with my community, and I'm so glad I did! Now I get to share the recipe and I hope you learn to love to bake it like I do.
"What do you use it for?" was the question I was asked the most at markets. Honestly? Everything! It is a little sweeter than your normal sandwich bread, but man oh man if it doesn't make a deli sandwich rise to new heights. But my all-time favorite thing to use this bread for? French toast. Hmm, I think I know what I'm making for breakfast tomorrow...
Fun fact, it took me almost a year and a half to be able to braid it correctly. It was me and a YouTube video, doing virtual fisticuffs forever until one day, POOF, it just clicked! So, if you're trying to braid it traditionally without someone to help you in person, don't feel bad if it takes many, many, many attempts before it looks like a correct braid. Braiding bread is hard, and adding 6 strands in there triples the difficulty.
I can't remember the video I used. Honestly, the 6-stranded braid is really cool, but not totally necessary. You can totally just do a normal old 3-strand and it still looks pretty. The key is to make sure your strands aren't slack when you braid them (more on this later) and you'll get a beautiful, delicious loaf!
Yield: 6 loaves
1 1/2 stick of margarine (or I generally used 9 Tb canola oil)
3 cups HOT water
2 tsp salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
3 Tb active dry yeast (NOT rapid rise)
2 Tb sugar
1 cup warm water
6 eggs, lightly beaten
4-4 1/2 lbs bread flour
1 egg + 1 Tb water, beaten together
Sesame seeds, optional
In a very large bowl, combine oil, salt, and sugar. Whisk together, then add 3 cups hot water. Stir to combine, then set aside to cool down.
In a medium bowl, combine warm water, yeast, and 2 Tb sugar; whisk to combine and set aside to prove about 5-10 minutes. When the hot water mixture has cooled a little, add in yeast mixture and beaten eggs. Add flour about 1 lb at a time, stirring in additional flour until you get a solid mass. Knead on a floured surface until dough feels firm and elastic.
In a lightly greased, large bowl, allow dough to rise, covered with plastic wrap, for 2-3 hours.
At the end of the rising time, prep two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats. On a lightly floured surface, tip your dough out and divide into 6 equal lumps (these will be your loaves). Divide each lump into either 3 or 6 and braid. Set on prepared sheets, leaving 2-3 inches between loaves. Allow to rest again for 20-40 minutes, or until puffy and keeps a little indent when poked.
Halfway through rising time, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring 1-2 cups water to a boil and place a metal container at the bottom of your oven for a steam bath. Once water has begun to boil, pour into metal container and allow to steam in oven for 15-ish minutes.
Brush risen loaves with egg wash, sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate sheets and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Tips and Tricks
When you're getting ready to braid, flatten out your strands and roll them up prior to shaping them into ropes. This forces the dough to have a tighter shape, giving you a higher rise! Just rolling them into Play-Do snakes will leave you with slack, shapeless loaves that don't rise as high.
Don't want to braid it at all? That's okay! Roll loaves out on a floured surface, roll up in a log and pinch the seam. Bake as directed above.
Mastered the braid and want to add some fun stuff to your loaves? Go for it! Dried seeds and fruits are great add-ins. Don't like sesame seeds on top? Try something else like poppy, everything bagel seasoning, or a glaze! This bread goes well with so many flavors that you could experiment like crazy and come out with something stellar every time.