Monday, August 3, 2009

Challah Bread -- The Best Bread for French Toast

Of all the breads I like to bake, Challah is my favorite. This is a Challah bread that uses both vanilla and honey to give it a subtly sweet flavor. Three-braid Challah is pretty common, and that's how I did this one. However, in future posts, we'll do some four-braid and six-braid styles as well.

Instead of making one large loaf, this week I made two smaller breads -- one to keep for us and another to give to my neighbor.

Sweet Honey Challah
4 1/2 C all-purpose flour, divided
1 tsp salt
1/4 C granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 C warm whole milk (low-fat is ok, but do not use 1% or skim)
3 eggs (2 for dough, 1 for egg wash)
1/4 C olive oil + 2 tsp for greasing the bowl and egg wash
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp honey (I prefer Orange Blossom, but clover honey works well, too)

In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup of flour, the yeast, sugar and salt. Add the warm milk, 2 eggs, 1/4 C olive oil, honey and vanilla. (Tip: spray your tablespoon with cooking spray before measuring the honey. That way, the honey won't stick to the spoon.) Using the whisk attachment, mix the ingredients for about 3 minutes. Add the remaining flour about 1 cup at a time. When the dough begins to be stiff, switch out the whisk attachment for the dough hook. Mix until all the flour is well incorporated and the dough is stiff.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 4 minutes. The dough is done when it's smooth and soft. Press your thumb into the dough. The thumb imprint should spring back out. This dough should be slightly firm - that will make for easier braiding later.

Grease a deep bowl with 1 tsp olive oil. Place dough into bowl and turn once to coat the dough. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise at room temperature until doubled in size (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease it with non-stick cooking spray.

When dough has risen, gently deflate it by pressing your fingers into it, then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion into a rope about 20 inches long. Be sure to make the middle of the strip slightly thinner than the ends for easier braiding. Lay the three ropes close together on the baking sheet. When doing a three-braid bread, I start braiding in the middle. So, working towards you, braid the lower half of the three ropes. Start with the outside ropes over the one in the center, left over the center, then right over the center, then left again, then right again until you get to the end of the ropes. Now turn the baking sheet around and do the same thing again, only this time move the outside ropes under the center one. Make sure you braid the ropes tightly so there are no spaces or gaps. When you finish, crimp the tapered ends together and tuck them under the loaf.

Cover the bread loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes. Just before the rising is finished, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Then whisk together 1 egg and 1 tsp of olive oil. Brush the dough with a thick layer of the egg mixture.

Place the dough in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until the bread is a deep golden brown. When the bread is done, transfer it to a baking rack. Allow it to cool before slicing.

This bread is delicious as French toast. It's also wonderful warm with a little honey butter.

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