A Big Batch of Beautiful Bread: Challah

There is an entire chapter in Uri Scheft's Breaking Breads on challah. A few years ago I made his marzipan challah recipe with instant yeast and really enjoyed it. Since I had a block of fresh yeast on hand I decided to use some of it in his basic challah recipe. The dough in the basic challah recipe is very similar, but not quite identical, to the one used for the marzipan challah. Both recipes yield three loaves of bread, because Scheft explains that you get better results when you make a larger quantity of dough that the mixer can grab onto and knead more effectively.

To make the dough, you put cool water into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook; crumble in fresh yeast; add all-purpose flour, eggs, sugar, salt, and butter (you can also use oil instead to make the bread dairy-free, but Scheft says that using butter yields a richer and more tender crumb); and knead the dough until smooth. Then you briefly stretch, tear and knead the dough by hand, and let the dough rise for about 40 minutes. If you want to make three loaves of bread, you divide the dough into nine equal pieces, shape each into into a long rope with tapered ends, and braid three loaves of bread each made with three strands. I made two loaves and ten challah rolls in a knotted shape. After letting the braided loaves and rolls rise, I brushed them with a mixture of egg yolk, water, and salt before baking.
The loaves were gorgeous, fat in the middle and thinner at the ends. They shrank a little after I took them out of the oven, which is why you see some puckering along the seams that formed as the bread contracted. The bread sliced beautifully and had a tight but soft crumb. Compared to Luisa Weiss' Swiss Braid that I made shortly before making this bread, the challah was slightly softer and sweeter. Because the recipe yielded so much bread, I still have quite a bit of the challah sliced up and in the freezer. It has held up beautifully. Just a few days ago I toasted some up for a fantastic ham sandwich, although this bread would be just as good as toast with a sweet jam or spread. I'm confident it would make excellent French toast.
The challah was outstanding and I would absolutely make it again -- I know it's just bread, but sometimes even just bread can be immensely satisfying. I also made Scheft's marzipan challah one more time with fresh yeast, and it was terrific. I wish I had been able to do a side-by-side tasting of each bread to compare the fresh yeast versions to the instant yeast versions, but wouldn't hesitate to make these recipes with either type.

Recipe: "Challah" from Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft, recipe available here at epicurious.com.

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