The Week 6 BBA Challenge bread is Challah, a traditional Jewish braided egg bread. Unlike Cindy at Salt and Serenity, who has been making Challah weekly for the past 12 years, until this challenge, I had never made Challah. I think I’ve eaten it before, but even that would have been 25 years ago when my family took a trip to Israel. So I approached this challenge with both the excitement of trying something new and the trepidation of jumping in blind.
The bread itself is a fairly straightforward egg dough, so I wasn’t concerned about that. What made me a bit nervous, however, was the thought of braiding the dough. Although I have been baking for about 30 years, I’ve never braided bread dough, and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I received a lot of encouragement from other BBAers, so I figured I’d dive in and have a go at it.
If you’ve read any of my other BBA blog posts, you know I don’t do things the simple way. For example, I made all three versions of brioche. So it shouldn’t surprise you to note that, even though I was nervous about the braiding, I decided to make two versions of Challah — a traditional yeasted bread, and a sourdough version.
For the sourdough version, I fed up Adrian to about 15 ounces, of which I used 14 ounces for the Challah, and the remaining ounce to feed and store for later. I keep Adrian at 100% hydration, so by using 14 ounces I replaced 7 ounces each of flour and water in the original recipe. I omitted the yeast from the dry mixture and didn’t add any additional water to the egg and oil mixture.
I took Adrian out of the refrigerator about an hour before I mixed up the dough, but the starter was still quite chilly. Because I didn’t add any additional water (I ended up mixing in quite a bit of flour during the kneading stage), I wasn’t able to adjust the dough temperature by using warm water. So after the mixing, the dough was still quite cool. This was fine with me, as I like to use a long ferment with sourdough to build in as much flavor as possible. However, I didn’t want it to be an all-day process, either, so I fermented the dough in my “proofing box“.
By increasing the temperature and humidity, I was able to kick start the fermentation process. It still took the dough longer to rise than the yeasted dough, which you would expect with sourdough.
While the sourdough Challah was fermenting, I mixed the yeasted Challah per the recipe. I again had to add extra flour during the kneading process, and I ended up with a beautiful, golden dough that was supple but not at all sticky. I fermented this dough at room temperature, and it rose beautifully.
After degassing and the second ferment, I divided the yeasted dough into three pieces. It is important that the dough pieces be of equal size for braiding, so I weighed the dough and then scaled each piece.
Then I preshaped the pieces into boules and set them aside to rest.
After a 10-minute rest (for me and the dough), I began rolling the dough into ropes. I wanted to make the ropes about the length of my Silpat, as that would give me plenty of length to work with when braiding. The dough resisted rolling and tried to pull back quite a bit, so I set the ropes, which were about half the length I wanted, aside and let them rest for another 10 minutes. This allowed the dough to relax and made it easier to roll out into ropes.
Once I got the ropes rolled to the length I wanted, I was ready to try my hand at braiding. I read, reread, and read again PR’s directions for a 3-strand braid. It sounded simple enough. Starting in the middle, you cross one of the outside strands over the center strand, then do the same from the other side. Once you have braided half the dough, you turn it around and braid the other end.
For the second half, you tuck the braids under the center, rather than taking them over the top. Again, it seemed easy enough, and before I knew it, I had what looked like a respectable Challah on my hands. The braids weren’t quite as tight as they might have been, but for my first time, I was pleased. I set the dough aside to proof for an hour or so, then sprinkled it with poppy seeds and preheated the oven.
I baked the loaf at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then took it out to rotate the pan. I was surprised by how done the loaf appeared, so at this point, I inserted my probe thermometer before returning the loaf to the oven.
For those of you not familiar with a probe thermometer, it is a thermometer that sits on the counter with a probe that can be stuck into a loaf of bread or piece of meat. The probe has a long wire on it, so whatever you are baking or roasting can be put into the oven with the probe in it, and you can monitor the temperature by looking at the unit sitting on the counter. Most probe thermometers, in addition to showing the internal temperature of your bread, also allow you to set the desired temperture. When the loaf reaches the correct internal temperature, an alarm will sound, telling you that it is done. Although the recipe said the loaf would take another 20 to 45 minutes to finish baking, my loaf reached 190 degrees in the center in about 7 more minutes.
Meanwhile, back to the sourdough Challah. After degassing the dough, I set it aside for the second ferment, which was supposed to take about an hour, according to the recipe. I put my dough in a measuring bowl (as seen in the proofing box picture above) so I could tell when it had increased to 1 1/2 time its original size. I wasn’t surprised that it took longer than an hour, and indeed it took almost 3 hours to reach the desired size.
Flush with my yeasted Challah braiding success, I decided to up the ante and try a 4-strand braid with the sourdough Challah. So I divided the dough into 4 equal pieces, rested them and rolled them out into ropes.
Following the directions for a 4-strand braid (or so I thought), I joined the ropes at the top and began braiding, 4 over 2, 1 over 3, 2 over 3, and on and on.
It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through braiding that I realized I had somehow left one of the strands completely out of the braiding process. I ended up with a lovely, 3-strand braid sitting on top of a straight rope.
I went ahead an baked it. It came out a little lopsided, as the straight rope sort of tipped over the braid. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the finished product. We were on our way out the door to a dinner party, to which I was taking both loaves. My dining companions and I had a good laugh about my braiding techniques, but everyone (including a couple who had lived in Israel for a while) agreed that the Challahs were a success. We didn’t notice much of a difference between the sourdough and yeasted loaves, except that the sourdough had a slightly softer crust.
All in all, I would call both Challah loaves a success. And I’m no longer afraid of braiding. In fact, I’m anxious to try a 4-strand braid again, to see how it looks when you use all 4 ropes!