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BackstoryThe dough used for making the cakelike challah can be formed into a variety of shapes, including braids, rolls and knots. The ingredients go together easily, and the bread looks beautiful when served. For the dinner table, you can form the dough into a pair of small braids or into a single large, spectacular one.
- 2 packages (5 tsp.) active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 eggs, plus 1 egg, beaten, for glaze
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. salt
- 8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room
- 1 Tbs. poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional
- To make the dough by hand, in a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the sugar, 3 eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the salt and butter until the dough comes together in a sticky mass. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, working in the remaining flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not be tempted to add too much flour. The dough should stay soft and will become less sticky with kneading.
- To make the dough with a stand mixer, in the 5-quart bowl of a mixer, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar, 3 eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the salt and butter. Place the bowl on the mixer, attach the dough hook and knead on low speed, working in the remaining flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not be tempted to add too much flour. The dough should stay soft and will become less sticky with kneading. Remove the dough from the bowl.
- Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot until it doubles in bulk, about 2 hours.
- Line a half-sheet pan or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Using a plastic pastry scraper, scrape the dough out onto a clean work surface. To make a 4-strand braid, cut the dough into 4 equal pieces with a sharp knife or a bench scraper. Using your palms, and starting in the center and working outward, elongate 1 piece by rolling it gently against the work surface with even pressure until you have formed a rope as long as the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining 3 pieces.
- Line up the 4 strands in front of you horizontally. Cross the strand farthest from you across the other 3 strands so that it is nearest you. Cross the strand that is now next to it across the other 2 strands away from you. Position the outside strands so that they are away from the center ones, and position the center 2 strands perfectly horizontal. Bring the strand nearest you down between the 2 horizontal strands. Bring the strand farthest from you up and across to the opposite side. Again, bring the strand farthest from you down between the 2 straight strands. Bring the strand nearest you up and across to the opposite side. Starting from the strand nearest you, repeat the braiding until you reach the ends of the ropes. Pinch them together at the top and at the bottom, and tuck the strands under at the ends.
- Place the braided loaf on the prepared pan, cover with a dry kitchen towel, and let rise again in a warm, draft-free spot until the loaf doubles in size and is spongy to the touch, 45 to 60 minutes.
- Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 350°F.
- Brush the braid gently with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the seeds. Bake the braid until it is nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Makes 1 large braided loaf.
- Variation: To make one large 3-strand braid, cut the dough into 3 equal pieces with a sharp knife or a bench scraper. Follow the directions for rolling out the ropes for the 4-strand braid. Line the 3 strands up straight so that they are in front of you vertically. Cross the right strand over the middle strand, then cross the left strand over the middle strand. Keep going back and forth, crossing left over right, then right over left, until you reach the ends of the ropes. Pinch them together at the top and at the bottom, and tuck the strands under at the ends.
- Adapted from Williams-Sonoma,Essentials of Baking,by Cathy Burgett, Elinor Klivans & Lou Seibert Pappas (Oxmoor House, 2003).