Sweet Technique: Braiding Challah
Challah is one of my favorite breads to bake at home. As a kid, I enjoyed the odd, yearly tradition of watching my baking-phobic mother grunt and groan as she worked challah dough studded with candied fruit. This bread heralded the arrival of Christmas, when my mom made challah as a stand-in for the traditional sweet bread served in Portugal at Christmas time. It wasn't until high school that I began rightly associating Challah with Jewish culture. Fast forward to adulthood, when I marry a Jewish man who is still struggling to understand why the Challah comes out with my family's Christmas dinner spread. For me it's win-win because I love making Challah, and between my two families, there's a slew of opportunity.
Challah is made from a dough that is enriched with eggs and egg yolks, honey, sugar, and vegetable oil. While it is slightly sweet, and falls on the pastry side of the restaurant kitchen, I don't consider it a dessert. Challah plays well with both sides of the sweet or savory spectrum; it's as great for French toast as it is for turkey sandwiches, and it's the perfect bread to accompany special dinners with the people you love.
Making the dough is a straightforward process; there's no complicated mixing process or multiple additions of ingredients. The most important part of mixing challah is the kneading, which should be ample, to attain the trademark chewy, stretchy texture. The dough is ready when it is very smooth and just a bit sticky. Challah gets two proofing cycles, one in a bowl right after mixing, followed by another, allowing for the dough to rise once it has been braided.
The toughest part of challah is the braiding technique. Luckily, there are different options for braiding to suit all abilities. Beginners may opt for the three-strand braid, while more ambitious bakers will strive for the four- or six-strand braids. Click through the slideshow to see how it's done and to check out some videos that will help you get the pattern straight. I recommend practicing with string before braiding the dough for the first time. Once you've got it down, try it out yourself. There's nothing like a gorgeous, braided bread to make your dinner guests ohh and ahh at the table.
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About the Author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute.