Challah: One Recipe; Three Attempts
As a preface let me say that I have had the perfect challah bread. It’s made by Double H Farms in Nelson County, Virginia, and it’s absolutely amazing. You’ve seen it featured here in at least one french toast recipe. I buy it biweekly during the summer at the Saturday Charlottesville Farmers Market, and usually we’re lucky if it lasts until breakfast on Sunday.
Now, Double H Farm’s challah is apparently not traditional challah. It’s much flatter and much softer and much lighter in color. But it is utterly delicious, and I can’t get enough. So that’s what I’m trying to replicate, so far unsuccessfully.
Here are my three attempts with the challah recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s New Best Recipes. I tried three times with the same recipe because I was sure I could just tweak something and make it work. Well, I made it better, but I didn’t make it perfect.
In the first attempt, I followed the recipe exactly. I’ve never made bread before, so I was entirely too paranoid and didn’t believe it could possibly work, so I watched and analyzed every step. Let me just tell you – my Kitchenaid mixer is a godsend. I love this thing so much. You put things in, and it turns them into other things right before your very eyes, usually rapidly. With the challah, I put in eggs, butter, water, flour, yeast, and salt, and it turns them into a small lump of bread dough. Who would have thought?
My second problem was one of perspective. When you are watching something every minute, it’s hard to tell when it changes. It’s like children, but not so dramatic. Anyway, I couldn’t believe my dough was rising. There are three sets of rises in this recipe, 2 hours, 1 1/2 hours, and 40 minutes, and I didn’t believe it for any of them. It was only when I showed Calin after the first one, tears welling in my eyes as I confessed that I’d failed, and he said “You’re crazy. It’s huge” that it occurred to me to consult my photos. Sure enough, definitely doubled.
The first and second risings are in the bowl. The third takes place after you’ve pulled apart and braided the challah. The recipe calls for two braids, they claim because it looks prettier. I think that’s arguable, but you tell me. Here is my double braid before and after rising. The recipe says it should be 1/3 bigger. I think this is at least that much.
When I baked my first batch of challah, it was a bit like the little braid tried to take off. This is the pretty side, where there’s only a little bit of scaring. The other side of the loaf looks like someone has bubblegum stuck to both lips. But they’re right – it is a good looking loaf, and it’s very interesting. I’m not sure it looks like a more complex braid – I think it just looks like I put one challah braid on top of another challah braid- but it’s certainly tall. And it was quite tasty. The hard shiny crust is relatively thin, and the inside was moist and fluffy. Excellent fresh out of the oven with butter. (I won’t confess how much of that first loaf we ate that night – at midnight, since my lack of bread experience lead me to entirely under estimate how long rising takes.)
The biggest disappointment came the next morning, when I made french toast with what was left of the loaf (no snarky comments please). Challah was designed for making challah french toast, as far as I’m concerned, so that’s the #2 priority (right after #1, which is eating it fresh out of the oven with butter). Our challah made pretty tasty french toast, but it wasn’t quite right. The bread didn’t absorb the batter at all, it was just too dense, so it was mostly a moist bread with french toast outsides. Good breakfast, but not what I was looking for.
After taking notes on the first batch, I thought for sure I’d be able to fix the problems. I knew where I’d gone wrong. Too much flour; baked too long; too thick from two braids, so only one for shorter baking and lighter bread. I was prepared.
This time, I took pictures at the beginning and end of every rise, so that I could be sure. First rise was supposed to double. It’s hard to tell, but I think it did.
Second rise is after “gently” punching down the first rise. I had too much fun with that part, especially since the dough is delicious (sweet!) and got stuck to my hands even more easily since I’d used less flour. But it definitely doubled.
Third rise. This time, it’s only supposed to be 1/3 bigger, but this time I remembered to transfer it to the baking sheet before I let it rise. (The first time I didn’t realize I’d done it wrong until it was time to put it in the oven, and then… oops. But it worked fine.) I’m still sure this rise doubles again, though. No sissy thirds for my challah.
With only one braid this time, I didn’t have to bake the bread for nearly as long. It still separated the way the first loaf had done, though obviously at different places. It’s a toss-up to me which of them was prettier. But for sure the second one was tastier. It was lighter and less dry. (The first loaf was moist, not dry, but it was on the edge. This was was solidly moist.) But we had company over at the time, and I have to confess that we ate the entire thing over the course of the evening. I didn’t get a chance to try it as french toast. I bet it still wouldn’t have absorbed.
The third attempt was very poorly documented. Once again we had company over, and I wasn’t really paying attention so I just made the bread between other events and didn’t take a single picture. I did tweak one or two things again, just to see, even though I was already fairly certain that I just need to try a different recipe. I still used less flour, and shortened the baking time, but this time I also didn’t use an egg wash before baking. The cookbook warned that the egg wash helped the challah keep its definition and attain that dark, shiny color. But the Double H Farm challah isn’t shiny – it’s soft and light; so I wanted to try it at least.
Well, let me just warn you. No egg wash does not make bread soft and light. No egg wash makes bread dull and brown. Instead of crisping into beautiful shiny rounds, my third loaf just sort of looked … blah. Oh well.
But it was delicious. And once again, we ate the entire loaf over the course of the evening. It was different company, I promise. We’re not getting a reputation or anything.
Stay tuned for different challah recipe attempts to come!