Challah Bread Recipe
Bread bakers are their own tribe - and while they might not have a secret handshake, I assure you they have a language all their own. Their idea of a window pane is not your idea of a window pane, and words like benching, barms, and bigas pepper their sentences. If you develop an interest in baking bread, chances are you'll encounter the work of bread baking ambassador and baker extraordinare, Peter Reinhart. I've eagerly awaited Peter's new book for months - primarily because of the prior success I've had with breads (and pizzas!) based on his writings and recipes. Look at the challah bread in the photograph up above - how beautiful is that? I take minimal credit. When I follow Peter's lead in the land of crust and crumb, I regularly meet with this type of success. This challah bread recipe is from his new release, Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor. Many of you are familiar with Peter's best-selling Bread Baker's Apprentice, it won both the IACP and James Beard book of the year awards in 2002.
One of the most significant aspects of this new book is Peter's introduction (and explanation) of a totally new way of making whole grain breads - he's nicknamed it "The Epoxy Method." I'm not going to get into the finer points of how it works in this post, but for the bread enthusiasts reading, this new technique will take your whole grain breads to new heights - literally. In addition to this new technique, there are other reasons I'm excited about the book...
You all know how much I like cooking and baking with whole grains, whole grain flours and the like. This book is full of recipes highlighting and utilizing this palette of ingredients.
Many of the breads featured in the book are highlighted a couple ways. Peter will include a 100% whole grain flour version of a bread, as well as alternate version that might have a blend of white and whole grain flour, say 50/50.
Beginners through breadheads:
It doesn't matter if you've never baked bread before in your life, the recipes and techniques are clearly explained and straight-forward. For more advanced bakers, you'll get the advanced, under-the-hood explanations you are looking for.
The book has both instructional and and beauty shots. The instructional shots are helpful confidence boosters as you are moving through recipes and techniques and bread types.
Getting to know Peter:
In the front of the book Peter talks about how his life, interests, and passions intersected in the realm of whole grain baking. It is one of my favorite sections.
I asked Peter if he had a favorite recipe from the book and he mentioned the spent grain bread he made recently for a Slow Food dinner (the recipe is included in Whole Grain Breads). It requires tracking down some spent grain from a local micro-brewery, but for you die-hards, it sounds worth the effort. He used spent grains from a batch of Irish Stout and noted the malty flavors were hard to beat. This spent grain bread is on my list to try, but I also have his potato rosemary bread, the Vollkornbrot, and the seeded crackers in my cross-hairs.
Peter's challah recipe creates a wonderful (and reasonably forgiving) dough that bakes into a tender, delicious version of the traditional Jewish celebration bread. Though I don't know much about the ritual and tradition surrounding challah bread, I've always been captivated by the intricate braiding. Going into this recipe I felt wildly ambitious and was determined to try a 6-strand braid.....let's just say I'll have to practice a few more times using something other than dough before I'm ready to graduate to anything more than a three strand braid.
Challah Bread Recipe
This is the transitional version of the 100% whole wheat challah included in the Peter's Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads. It is a blend of whole wheat and white flours, and takes two days to make - not all active. There are three major components (soaker, biga, and final dough).
Day 1: Soaker and biga, 20 minutes set up and mix; overnight
Day 2: 2 hours to de-chill biga; 12 to 15 minutes mixing; 2 to 3 hours fermentation, shaping, and proofing; 40 to 60 minutes baking.
PART ONE: THE SOAKER
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) whole wheat flour, preferably fine grind
1/2 teaspoon (.14 ounces) salt
3/4 cup (6 ounces) water
1. Mix all the soaker ingredients together in a bowl for about 1 minute, until all of the flour is hydrated and the ingredients form a ball of dough.
2. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. (If it will be more than 24 hours, place the soaker in the refrigerator; it will be good for up to 3 days. Remove it 2 hours before mixing the final dough to take off the chill.)
PART TWO: THE BIGA
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) unbleached bread flour
1/4 teaspoon (.03 ounces) instant yeast
7 tablespoons (3.5 ounces) filtered or spring water, at room temperature (about 70F or 21C)
1 large egg (1.65 ounces), slightly beaten
4 egg yolks (2 ounces)
1. Mix all of the biga ingredients together in a bowl to form a ball of dough. Using wet hands, knead the dough in the bowl for 2 minutes to be sure all of the ingredients are evenly distributed and the flour is fully hydrated. The dough should feel very tacky. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then knead it again with wet hands for 1 minute. The dough will become smoother but still be tacky.
2. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours a day and up to 3 days.
3. About 2 hours before mixing the final dough, remove the biga from the refrigerator to take off the chill. It will have risen slightly but need not have risen significantly in order to use it in the final dough.
PART THREE: THE FINAL DOUGH
Use all of the soaker
Use all of the biga
7 tablespoons (2 ounces) whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon (.14 ounces) salt
2 1/4 teaspoons (.25 ounces) instant yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons honey or agave nectar (1 ounce) OR 2 tablespoons or sugar or brown sugar (1 ounce)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) vegetable oil
- extra whole wheat flour for adjustments
- 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water plus a pinch of salt for egg wash
- poppy seeds or sesame seeds for topping (optional)
1. Using a metal scraper, chop the soaker and the biga into 12 smaller pieces each (sprinkle some of the extra flour over the pre-doughs to keep the pieces from sticking back to each other).
2. If mixing by hand, combine the soaker and biga pieces in a bowl with the 7 tablespoons flour and the salt, yeast, honey, and vegetable oil. Stir vigorously with a mixing spoon or knead with wet hands for about 2 minutes, until all of the ingredients are evenly integrated and distributed into the dough. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky; if not, add more flour or water as needed. If using a stand mixer, put the pre-dough pieces in the bowl along with the 7 tablespoons of flour and the salt, yeast, honey, and vegetable oil. Mix on slow speed with the paddle attachment (preferable) or the dough hook for 1 minute to bring the ingredients together into a ball. Switch to the dough hook if need be and mix on medium-low speed, occasionally scraping down the bowl, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the pre-dough becomes cohesive and assimilated into each other. Add more flour or water as needed until the dough is soft and slightly sticky.
3. Dust a work surface with flour, then roll the dough in the flour to coat. Knead the dough by hand for 3 to 4 minutes, incorporating only as much extra flour as needed, until the fought feels soft and tacky, but not sticky. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest on the work surface for 5 minutes while you prepare a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
4. Resume kneading the dough for 1 minute to strengthen the gluten and make any final flour or water adjustments. The dough should have strength and pass the windowpane test, yet still feel soft, supple, and very tacky. Form the dough into a ball and place it in the prepared bowl, rolling to coat with oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for approximately 45 to 60 minutes, until it is about 1 1/2 times its original size.
5. Gently transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface with a plastic bowl scraper (try not to rip or tear the dough). You can make 1 large braided loaf or 2 smaller loaves, or you can cut as many as 16 smaller pieces for dinner rolls. For braided challah, use a metal pastry scraper to cut the dough into 3, 4, 5, or 6 equal pieces, depending on the type of braid you want to make; do not rip the dough - make clean cuts. Roll the pieces into short ropes about 3 inches long. Cover loosely with a cloth towel or plastic wrap, let rest 5 minutes, the roll each piece into a longer rope, about 10 inches long. (heidi note: I made 2 loaves made from standard 3 piece braids, you will need to reference the book to learn the more advanced braiding, to understand 3 piece braiding reference the end of the recipe).
6. Place the braided loaf on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicon mat. Brush the egg wash on the loaf, mist the top of the dough with pan spray (optional), and cover loosely with plastic wrap, or place the pan in a plastic bag. Let the dough rise at room temperature for 30 minutes.
7. Brush the dough with egg wash a second time, then top with poppy seeds or sesame seeds. Leave the dough uncovered to continue rising for 15 more minutes. Preheat the oven to 400F (204C).
8. Place the challah on the middle shelf, reduce the heat to 325F (163C), and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the loaf 180 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. Check the bread and rotate again if it is baking unevenly. Continue baking for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the bread is a rich brown all over around, sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom, and registers at least 195F (91C) in the center.
9. Transfer the bread to a cooling rack and let it cool for at least 1 hour before serving.
Other notes: If you make smaller breads or rolls from this dough, increase the oven temperature by 25F (14C). larger loaves take longer and need to bake more slowly, but because rolls and mini loaves bake quickly, they can be baked at higher temperature.
Three-piece braiding: Lay three equal strands side by side. Start by overlapping one of the outside strands over the middle strand. Take the opposite outside strand and lay it over the new middle strand. Continue this pattern until you run out of dough. Pinch the end closed. Rotate the loaf 180 degrees and repeat the pattern.