I used to bake bread nearly every week, mostly French bread, using a recipe from an old-as-the-hills yellowed, dog-eared paperback copy of The James Beard Cookbook. Growing up, my mother made all our bread from scratch and I soon fell into the habit of making everything except our sandwich loaves from scratch. In addition to French bread and a variety of sweet and savory loaves, I've attempted with varying success tortillas, pretzels, cinnamon rolls, naan, puri, and bagels.
I even bravely ventured to follow Bread Meister Nancy Silverton's instructions for making a sourdough starter from scratch scratch, which involved red grapes, water, white bread flour, and no end of hair pulling on my part during the a 14-day process. What did I get for my efforts? Something that looked like it was produced in the lab of some cheesy Hollywood Sci-Fi film and that proved utterly useless for bread-making, but which, when combined with some sugar, butter, and flour, made the best tasting pancakes this side of the sun.
One of my all time favorite breads, though, made utilizing a much saner method, is challah. With its brioche-like texture, challah is one of those breads you can eat on Saturday evening slathered with butter and dipped in soup and then slice up on Sunday morning for French bread.
The recipe I use is straight out of Julia Child’s Baking With Julia, and it’s pretty much foolproof. I make most of it in the bowl of my little red KitchenAide Ultra Power mixer, and then finish it up by kneading it by hand. Julia hits the nail on the head when she calls the result, “just a little sweet, just a little soft, and just this side of heavenly.”
2 T unsalted butter, melted
1-1/2 T active dry yeast (or two packets)
1/2 cup tepid water (80ºF to 90ºF)
1/3 cup sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1 T mild honey
2-1/2 t salt
4 large eggs
6 -1/2 cups (approximately) flour
Brush a large mixing bowl with some of the melted butter; set aside. Reserve the remaining butter for later use.
Whisk the yeast into the water. Add a pinch of the sugar and let rest until the yeast has dissolved and is creamy, about 5 minutes.
Cut butter into small pieces and heat with milk in a saucepan until hot to the touch and the butter has just melted. Pour into a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a large, electric stand mixer), and add the remaining sugar, the honey, and the salt, stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and salt. Let the mixture cool to to 110ºF or lower.
Add the yeast mixture to the milk mixture, along with the eggs, and stir to mix. Stirring vigorously, or with the mixer on low, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, stopping when you have a dough that cleans the sides of the bowl and is difficult to stir.
At this point, you can continue to let the stand mixture knead your dough, but I’ve never been satisfied with the results, so I remove and knead by hand.
Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to the buttered mixing bowl. Brush the top with a little of the melted butter, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and then a kitchen towel. Let the dough rises at room temperature for one to 1 1/2 hours, or until double in size. When the dough is fully risen, deflate it, cover as before, and let it rise until it doubles in bulk again, 45 minutes to one hour.
Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Cut the dough in half and keep one piece of dough covered while you work with the other.
Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 16 inches long; it should be thick in the center and tapered at the ends. Align the ropes vertically, side by side, and pinch the ends to seal and tuck under the loaf. Braid the pieces and then pinch the other ends together and tuck under the loaf. Braid the second loaf. Cover both loaves with a towel and let rise at room temperature for 40 minutes, or until soft, puffy, and almost doubled.
Pre-heat oven to 375ºF.
Beat together one large egg, one large egg yolk, and one T heavy cream. Brush tops and sides of loaves with the glaze, let stand five minutes, and brush again. Reserve left overs. Sprinkle glazed loaves with poppy seeds, caraway seeds, or coarse salt.
Transfer bread to a baking sheet, bake for 20 minutes in the middle of the oven, then brush newly exposed dough with the rest of the glaze. Bake another 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the loaves are golden in color and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
Let cool, slice, and eat!
Head on over to Dim Sum Sunday's host, Big Shamu at Karmic Kitchen, to see what everyone else baked up!