I have a reliable recipe, of course. But I've spoken to others who make challahs using a slightly different proportion of eggs, oil and sugar, who let the dough rest at different times, or who glaze the loaf with whole eggs, egg whites, water or nothing at all, and who come up with equally tasty results. So what's the key to success?
I'd say patience. I work the dough, let it rest, knead it enough.
But also music. I usually pick something I can dance to, with a solid beat. Ten minutes of kneading is a lot easier if you've got a nice drum line going.
Today I dug out an old album, Paul Simon's Graceland. I can't listen to I know What I Know without wanting to dance. (And yes, I've dated myself.)
Here's my recipe:
2 packets active dry yeast (NOT the instant variety)
1 ½ cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1/3 to ½ cup sugar, to taste
About 6 to 6 ½ cups King Arthur unbleached white bread flour or all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup vegetable oil (Vegetable, corn, or canola work well. Olive can be used in a pinch.)
4 eggs – 2 whole, 2 divided
Mix the yeast with ½ cup of the water and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Let the mixture rest for 5 to 10 minutes until it’s foamy.
In a large bowl, either by hand or using an electric mixer with dough hooks/attachments, mix 4 cups of flour with remaining sugar, salt, and oil until it’s crumbly. Add remaining yeast mixture, water, 2 whole eggs, 2 egg whites and beat together for about 4 minutes. Slowly add in just enough of the flour to form a sticky dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Let stand for 4 minutes.
Turn out dough onto a floured surface, scraping all the flour and dough stuck to the sides of the bowl. Knead it for 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary. It should be smooth when done. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn the dough once so all sides are oily. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or other smooth cover (make sure the dough can breathe!) and a clean dish towel to keep the dough moist and dark. Let rise for about 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.
Divide dough in half for 2 loaves. For each loaf, divide the dough into 3, 4. 5 or 6 pieces, depending upon the kind of braid you prefer. Let them stand for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, grease 2 cookie sheets with a hard fat such as butter, margarine or vegetable shortening. Sprinkle surface with corn meal. ALTERNATIVELY cut parchment paper to the size of your cookie sheet and place on the sheet.
Braid and form dough. Place on prepared sheet. Let rise for 30 to 45 minutes. For the glaze, mix 2 egg yolks with 2 teaspoons water. Brush loaves completely with the yolk mixture. Bake immediately in a preheated 375 degrees oven for 35 minutes. Crust should be brown and the bottom of each loaf should sound hollow when tapped. It’s okay if portions of the crusts in the cracks of the braid are yellow rather than brown. Cool loaves on wire racks.
Challahs freeze well. Wrap in two layers of airtight plastic – large turkey cooking bags work particularly well. Defrost loaf inside the plastic wrapping over 5 or 6 hours at room temperature, so that the bread can reabsorb the moisture.