Great British Bake Off Challenge: Challah

This is the most fun I've ever had baking bread. It looks great and it makes your home smell amazing. If I were selling a house, I would bake this before people came to view it...challah is house selling bread. 

I have to admit I knew very little about challah before I started looking into a recipe for my challenge this week. If you have been watching Great British Bake Off you'll know they did celebration loaves for the showstopper this week. There were brioches and a Christmas wreath but no challah. 

Challah is a Jewish plaited loaf eaten on the Sabbath and holidays. The recipe makes two loaves which "commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years after the Exodus from Egypt". I love it when baking can teach you something completely new. Each loaf is made up of six strands, which together represent each tribe of Israel. (Thank you Wikipedia for teaching me in this instance).

The stages of these loaves feel almost ritualistic. It's comforting to make it and wonderful to know that people have been making it for thousands of years. It has a subtle sweetness to it and, when toasted, would be very similar to a toasted teacake. It feels like a very versatile bread, I took it to girl's brunch yesterday and made cinnamon french toast with it. Challah makes excellent french toast...seriously, really good french toast. 

I had never plaited a loaf before. It was a little intimidating. With the help of this great video on youtube, I was able to get my head round it. What I found was that, about half way through plaiting it looks very much like it's not working but if you continue it suddenly looks great and you can pat yourself on the back for having mastered a 6-strand plait. Woohoo!

By the second loaf I felt as thought I'd mastered it but there were no more loaves to continue with...this is why I need a bakery so I can mass practice multi-strand plaited loaves all day. 

Challah is typically sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds but in my excitement at having mastered the plait I egg washed the loaves and forgot the poppy seeds...silly me. 

(from The Smitten Kitchen)
Makes 2 loaves
Time:  about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising

1 1/2 sachets active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons or 11 grams)
1 tablespoon 100g sugar
118ml olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon table salt
1kg plain flour (add another 60g gradually if your dough is a little wet)
70 g per challah loaf, if using, plumped up in hot water and drained
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling
  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 430ml lukewarm water.
  2. Whisk the oil into the yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. 
  3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. (It's quite a large amount of dough, a little too much for a standard KitchenAid so I would recommend kneading by hand for about 10-15 minutes). Clean out the bowl and grease it, then place the dough in the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
  4. At this point, you can knead the raisins into the challah, if you’re using them, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. Watch this video or have a go at these written instructions: With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over  Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
  5. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.
  6. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 190 degrees C/ 375 F and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
  7. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool loaves on a rack.

Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, for more deeply-developed flavor. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.