Sean has been asking me to try to make challah bread for a long time and I have avoided doing it because I couldn’t find a recipe where everything seemed easy enough to follow that I would not have a problem with it. The recipe itself is not that difficult; I was always a little intimidated by the whole braiding aspect of the bread. Finally, Michelle said to me “It’s just like braiding a girl’s hair,” something I haven’t even tried since I was younger and my younger sisters needed someone to help them with hair when no one else was around. Anyway, I decided to give it a try and got this recipe from Williams-Sonoma to try it out. There are only a few ingredients involved in the bread and it is the perfect time of year to give this one a try with Easter and Passover right around the corner.
2 packages (5 teaspoons) 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 teaspoons salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional)
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 it stand until it is 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 sheet pan or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Using a 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.
Alternatively, 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.
Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
Brush the braid gently with the beaten egg and sprinkle it with the seeds, if using. Bake the braid until it is nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the bread to a wire rack and let cool completely.