I’m not new to baking. Far from, really. I’ve blogged on my own site, BakingandMistaking.com, for 2 ½ years, and I’ve been a food columnist for The Jewish Week for almost a year. But after beginning the semester at the Jerusalem Culinary Institute – as a Patisserie student – several weeks ago, I’ve had to forget just about everything I already knew.
Forget about scooping some flour up with a measuring cup and scraping the rest off, forget grabbing a handful of chocolate chips and saying… ‘hmm, looks about right’ and definitely forget contemplating swapping the recipe ingredients for those you happen to have lying around the kitchen. In the professional pastry kitchen, everything is about precision. Every ingredient is weighed exactly, everything is mixed in the right order and everything is timed to the last minute.
The course is 6 months long, covering everything from cookies to danishes, tarts, chocolate and even wedding cakes. The first three weeks was spent on bread instruction, and after that it has become clear that timing truly is everything. In the kitchen, inaction is as important as action. This means that the waiting and resting periods of making challah are crucial to its development. If you try to speed this process up, the finished product will suffer
There are two other important things to keep in mind for making the best challah. The first is ingredient choice. I use bread flour here, as opposed to all purpose, which has a higher gluten content. In addition, instant dry yeast, and never active dry yeast, is used. It is a much more reliable product for bread use. If you truly can’t find it, you can use active dry yeast in the same quantities but it must be dissolved in the water first and left for 5 to 10 minute to develop bubbles.
The last thing you do to ensure perfect challah is the shaping. Never rip apart your challah pieces by hand, this will tear the gluten strands you’ve worked so hard to develop. Instead use a sharp knife or bench scraper to divide the pieces before forming the shape. After all this effort, you will be rewarded with a mouth-watering challah for your Shabbat table!
320g/11 ounces water
80g/3 ounces sugar
12g/0.5 ounces salt
60g/2 ounces oil
100g/3.5 ounces eggs (approximately 2 large eggs)
800g/28 ounces bread flour
12g/0.5 ounces instant dry yeast
Egg, for brushing
Sesame seeds (optional)
Add the water, sugar, salt, oil and eggs to a large bowl. Top with the flour and yeast. Mix well, in a mixer with a dough hook attachment or with a wooden spoon. Mix on low to moisten all the ingredients, then on medium for about 8 minutes until the dough has completely gathered together and is worked well. By hand, it should take 10 to 12 minutes of kneading, and the dough should spring back when poked.
Remove the dough from the bowl or mixer, on to a lightly floured surface. Dust with flour, cover with a cloth or plastic wrap, and let rest for 30 to 45 minutes (if your kitchen is very warm, the lesser time should be enough). When you poke the dough now, it should hold the indentation.
Using a knife or bench scraper (do not rip by hand), and working on a floured surface, divide the dough in to 3 equal pieces. Take one of those pieces, then cut in to 4 equal pieces.
Working with one piece at a time, flatten it out in to a rectangle, then roll up tightly, pressing to seal, in to a cylinder. Roll out in to a long thing rope. Continue with the remaining pieces.
Press the 4 ropes together at the top to seal, then braid in the following pattern: 4 over 2, 1 over 3, 2 over 3, repeat. The numbers reset after every turn, so there is no keeping track of which piece is which.
After braiding, brush with the egg wash (reserve what is left) and let rise for an additional 30 to 45 minutes. Brush again with the egg, top with sesame seeds if using, then bake on 160 C/320 F for 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool.
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