This moderately sweet braided bread is as delicious as it is beautiful. I've been baking for a few years and this challah recipe is the result of many iterations of tweaking and perfecting. —Sherry Zaks
(i.e. ½ cup + ⅛) Warm Water (warm enough to dissolve the honey!)
(heaping tsp) Active Dry Yeast (Instant / Rapid Rise works just as well, do NOT change the timing)
(The amount you use will depend on humidity in your area). Unbleached Flour (I prefer Bread Flour... you can use AP in a pinch, but the bread is fluffier with Bread Flour)
Cinnamon (depending on whether and how much you like cinnamon)
Handful of golden raisins
Glaze / Egg Wash
Milk (Soy / Rice / Almond is fine, I've used these for lactose intolerant friends with great results)
Sugar (Or you can sub honey or agave – just warm it up so it dissolves)
Dissolve honey in the water in a large mixing bowl... let it cool for a minute and then stir in yeast. Set aside for 15 minutes; the yeast should form a creamy layer on top. (WARNING: if it doesn't, your yeast is dead! try again. I often have to use bottled water because in some places tap water has enough add-ins to kill yeast)
Stir in olive oil & beaten egg. Add 1⁄2 Cup of flour and stir then add in the salt and the cinnamon (if you’re using it). Continue to add the flour 1⁄2 Cup at a time until the dough comes together and cleans the side of the bowl as you stir.
Add in enough flour so that it's not wet to the touch, but it should still be a bit sticky/tacky.
(you'll probably have a little under a cup left, which is fine, and you'll add that in as you knead)
Place a towel over the bowl and let rest for 15 minutes for the flour to hydrate.
Turn dough onto a floured surface, sprinkle flour on the mass of dough and onto your hands, begin to knead until smooth and elastic --- about 7-10 minutes. As you're kneading, sprinkle more of the remaining flour onto the mass & cutting board if it's really sticky. (I tend to use only about 2 cups out of the 2.5, but I live in a dryer area). The final dough should be tacky, and not sticky -- if you touch it with a dry finger, you shouldn't have dough on your finger when you remove it.
Lightly oil a bowl, place dough mass in bowl. Let rise in a warm place for about 90 minutes (or until it doubles in bulk). I like to place mine in my oven (not turned on) and I put a pot of boiling water next to it for steam and humidity (and warmth).
Turn the dough out onto a VERY lightly floured surface (just a few sprinkles of flour). Punch dough down, let rest for 10 minutes in order to let the gluten relax -- otherwise it's WAY too elastic and hard to get the long pieces you'll need for braiding.
Cut the dough in half, and cut each half in half, leaving you with 4 pieces. Roll out each of the pieces (by hand) until they are about 14" in length (a little less than elbow to fingertip). Line them up vertically to you and parallel to each other, pinch the top ends together, and tuck that pinch under itself. (I usually do this RIGHT on the baking sheet + silpad (or parchment) on which I'll be baking the loaf – it just allows me to transfer it fewer times)
Braiding: (Don't braid TOO tightly – try to make the tightness as even as possible)
Take the 3 strands on the right, and go through one cycle of a normal (3 strand) braid.
Then take the fourth strand (the one you haven't touched all the way on the left) and tuck it under the strand immediately to its right.
Take the 3 strands on the right, and go through another cycle of a normal braid.
Again, take the leftmost strand and tuck it under the one just to its right
To illustrate, Starting with: ABCD
One Braid: ADBC
Tuck A under D: DABC
One Braid: DCAB
Tuck D under C: CDAB
So the process is: braid the right, and switch the left strand in for the next cycle.
When you can't braid anymore, pinch the ends together and tuck the pinched part underneath itself as you did with the top.
Preheat oven to 350. If you haven't done the braid on top of the baking sheet, line a baking sheet with parchment or tinfoil or a silicone mat and sprinkle a little flour down. Transfer the braided loaf to the baking sheet and let it rise for about 50 minutes. (I let it rise on top of the stove, which is now nice and warm due to the oven's being on)
Make the Glaze while the dough is rising:
Just whisk all glaze ingredients together
Right before you put the loaf in the oven brush (generously) with this glaze. If you like poppy seeds, sprinkle the top with poppy seeds after you glaze it.
(I keep meaning to get one of those $1 travel spray bottles because I think that would work almost better than a brush).
Pop the loaf in the oven, set a timer for 15 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN IN THE MEANTIME! After 15 minutes, rotate the baking sheet 180 degrees. Set timer for another 15 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN IN THE MEANTIME! Now check the loaf. Bake until the loaf is a light golden brown. I find this takes about 33-35 minutes in a gas oven, but 28-30 in an electric oven.
Let it cool for about 15 minutes before you dig in – this will undoubtedly be the hardest part of this recipe. But trust me, bread tastes better if you wait a few minutes. It keeps REALLY well on the counter for a few days wrapped in tin foil.
If you want to make french toast out of it (say, 2 or 3 days later), cut a few slices, and leave them out for 12 hours to stale up a bit.