A Thanksgiving Offering: Braided Challah Bread

I have been anxiously awaiting Thanksgiving since I first opened my eyes on November first. I love the anticipation of time with family, packing up the car and going off to see relatives, my favorite desserts, and all of the tradition-filled activities that accompany the holidays. Ryan once noted that I am a very nostalgic person, and this is true. Traditions and memories mean a lot to me, and observing certain rituals every year makes me happy.

My Thanksgiving offering is not a traditional holiday gift, but it’s one of my most-loved, and most-asked-for, recipes. It’s a Challah bread recipe, adapted from a recipe given to me by my aunt. I know most people serve rolls with the turkey dinner, but this braided bread will woe any group of diners. It’s moist and slightly sweet. The egg gives it a stretchy quality, that makes it irresistible when torn in chunks, as opposed to sliced. And, for me, it’s special because of the memories associated with it. I first tasted it on a hot summer Saturday in New York City. We had ridden a bus to my aunt’s apartment to spend Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, with her and her family. She fed us a fabulous feast, complete with this bread, which I found addictive. Being nostalgic prone, it also sparked memories of my childhood. My family never baked Challah bread, but I remember my dad bringing home a loaf occasionally as a treat for my mom. He rode the bus home from work each day, and on his walk to our house, he passed a French bakery. They made a delicious Challah loaf, and whenever he brought one home, its yeasty fragrance would fill the kitchen and my mouth would water. The loaves were always meant as a gift for my mother, but she invariably passed out slices to all of us. Before visiting my aunt that afternoon, it never occurred to me that I could recreate such a treat in my kitchen, but tasting it again inspired me and, determined to try, I scribbled down the recipe before we left the next morning.

This version has been highly adapted from my aunt’s, transforming into an all-wheat loaf with the addition of flaxseed, but I think it retains the same scrumptious qualities as the original. This is best served warm with butter. I hesitate to make such an unequivocal statement, but I really don’t think I’ve ever tasted another bread recipe this good. I hope you give it a try, and, if you do, let me know what you think!

Special Diets and Allergies: Nut free, vegetarian.

Sorry folks, no speeding this one up. But it’s worth every minute!

Whole Wheat Challah Bread

Makes 4 Braided Loaves

This traditional Jewish bread is heavenly. The braided loaves tear apart in tender chunks that are so soft, moist, and sweet, no one will believe it’s one-hundred percent whole wheat. I love this best just five or ten minutes after it comes out of the oven, still warm, slathered with melting butter or dripping with honey. I’ve included directions for how to make this with either a standing mixer or by hand, so no one misses out. Note that you’ll need a large mixer for this recipe; if yours is smaller, like mine, you’ll have to take it out towards the end and finish kneading the dough by hand for the last cup or so of flour. If you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, just substitute unbleached, all-purpose flour. You can also use honey instead of the agave. Also, you can try this without the flaxseed, but the bread won’t be quite as stretchy and tender. You’ll also have to decrease the flour to get the described texture. If you go this route, I would plan on eating it as soon as possible, as it will still taste great straight out of the oven, but will get stale and crumbly faster than if it has the flaxseed.

 Ingredients:

3 T flaxseed meal
3 T very hot water
2 C warm water
4 1/2 t yeast
1 egg
1/2 C oil
1 T salt
1/2 C agave
5 C whole wheat pastry flour
4 – 4 2/3 C whole wheat flour

Directions:

  1. In a small bowl, combine the flaxseed meal and 3 T very hot water. Set aside until cool and gelatinous about 5 minutes/
  2. Mix 1/2 C of the water with the yeast and beat with a fork until foamy.

Standing Mixer:

  1. Mix the other 1 1/2 C of the water with the egg, oil, salt,  flaxseed mixture, and agave and beat together until combined. Add 2 C of the whole wheat pastry flour and 2 C of the whole wheat flour to the agave and oil mixture and beat until smooth. Add the yeast and water mixture and beat again until mixed.
  2. Replace the beater with the dough hook attachment.
  3. Add another 2 C pastry flour and knead until combined. Then add another 2 C whole wheat and knead until all the flour is mixed in.
  4. Now start adding the flour in smaller portions, about 1/2 C at a time, until the right consistency is reached. If you use all of the remaining 1 C pastry flour, add more whole wheat flour, probably about 1/2 C until, the dough has a nice, soft consistency and no longer sticks to a clean finger when pressed against the dough.
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean it, and lightly coat it with vegetable oil. Pour a little oil on your hands and spread it over the ball of dough; place in a bowl and cover with a moist towel.

By Hand:

  1. Mix the other 1 1/2 C of the water with the egg, oil, salt, flaxseed mixture, and agave and whisk together until combined. Add 2 C of the whole wheat pastry flour and 2 C of the whole wheat flour to the agave and oil mixture and beat until smooth. Add the yeast and water mixture and beat again until mixed.
  2. Add another 2 C pastry flour and stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Keep adding flour, alternating between pastry and whole wheat, until the dough becomes too stiff to stir with a spoon.
  3. Dump it out on the counter, and knead, continuing to add flour, until it reaches a nice, soft consistency and no longer sticks to a clean finger when pressed against the dough.
  4. Lightly coat a clean bowl with vegetable oil. Pour a little oil on your hands and spread it over the ball of dough; place in a bowl and cover with a moist towel.

For either:

  1.  Let rise the dough rise until double, about 2 hours depending on the warmth of your kitchen (the warmer it is, the faster the dough sill rise).
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 F and move the top rack to the second highest position in the oven (in the top third). Grease two large cookie sheets or two 9×13” pans.
  3. Punch down and separate the dough into four portions.
  4. Separate each of these into three balls. Roll into snakes about 18” long and braid into four loaves. (For a decorative look, brush some egg white on each loaf, then sprinkle sesame seeds or poppy seeds in a line next to each loaf. Gently flip the braid and roll in the seeds.) 
  5. Place the loaves on greased cookie sheets or 9×13” glass pans (two per sheet for a normal sized pan), and cover with moist towels.
  6. Let rise again, 40 minutes or so.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until slightly brown on top—the bottom of the loaves should be golden brown; don’t let them get too dark or they will be hard and dry. (If you use cookie sheets, the cooking time will be less than if you use glass pans.)
  8. If you like, you can slip these under a broiler for just a few seconds at the end to give the top a nice brown look, but be careful! They will quickly darken and burn. Brush with butter to give the loaves a lovely, golden sheen.
  9. Serve warm with butter, honey, a soft cheese like havarti or brie,) or good fruit preserves (or a combination). I think it’s best simply torn in chunks, but for a more civilized meal, it’s also delicious sliced.

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7 responses to “A Thanksgiving Offering: Braided Challah Bread

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Rosalie! I have never tried adding falxseed, but what an inspired addition. (I;m already addicted to flaxseed.) Hugs from the adoring
    Aunt

    • Hi Martha! I couldn’t resist posting this; it’s one of my most loved recipes. Do you remember the vegetable cheesecake you served it with? I have thought of that often, too.
      I love the flaxseed in it. It gives it the stretch that would normally come from the gluten in white flour.

  2. I think your best bet would be to substitute 1/3 C gluten flour for the egg. Gluten flour works very well in whole wheat breads in terms of giving it elasticity (which is what the egg does). I stopped using it awhile ago because I’m not entirely sure what it is, and eggs and flaxseed seem more “natural” I guess, but I’m not really sure about that. In any case, I used to use egg and gluten flour in this recipe, and I think using flaxseed and gluten will give you the same result. (All flaxseed would be too dense, I think, but you could try it). You’ll have to decrease the flour some to get the right texture, though, as you’ll be taking out a liquid and subbing with a dry ingredient. Good luck! Let me know how it turns out.

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