Every year for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), I buy round challahs from a bakery in Crown Heights near my office. (Round challahs are customary for Rosh Hashana and the high holidays, whereas other times they're usually long and braided.) They are, in my opinion, the best challahs one can buy, -- and so well priced! I like mine with raisins on the holidays, but my sisters don't. So I end up bringing home a bunch of challahs, some with raisins and some without. But this year, my schedule was such that my last day of work before Rosh Hashana was a few days before the holiday, and I didn't want so bring home challahs a few days before and have them be stale. So since I was off the Friday before the holiday, I decided to attempt challah again.
I went with the recipe I found on SmittenKitchen, because, well, I think Deb's blog is amazing (I call her Deb though I don't know her at all; I assume if we did meet, we'd hit it off quite nicely) and everything I've made from it has been fantastic. And plus, it was the first place I looked and I felt I didn't need to go any further. Duh! And added bonus, it makes two loaves -- so I went with one with raisins (for me!) and one without (for my sisters).
I had trouble with the braiding directions that she gave, so I ended up making a long 3-strand braided raisin challah (because it's not round, it won't be served on the holidays, but I don't mind that much since I can sample some today!) and a 6-strand braided plain round challah.
From Smitten Kitchen
3 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (about 1.5 packages, but I ended up using two full packages)
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing bowl (believe it or not, I couldn't find vegetable oil at Whole Foods, so I used canola)
5 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp table salt
8 to 8.5 cups all-purpose flour (I ended up needing 8 cups)
1/2 cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained, and blotted dry
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional, I opted not)
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and 1 Tbsp sugar in water (I used my stand mixer bowl).
Set aside for 5 minutes until a bit foamy.
Whisk oil into yeast.
Then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time.
Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and salt.
Gradually add flour.
When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (Deb says: You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful if using a standard size KitchenAid - it's a bit much for it, though it can be done -- I used the stand mixer for mixing but ended up kneading the dough on the counter).
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.
Clean out bowl and grease it (I used a different bowl since I needed my stand mixer for other things....stay tuned!).
Return dough to the bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap.
Let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size (alternately you can let it rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees and then turned off).
Punch down dough.
Cover and let rise again in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
If using raisins, this is the point at which you should knead them in.
Smitten Kitchen talks about how to braid the challah but I had a really hard time following it, so I ended up doing a 3-strand braid and a 6-strand "fishbone." Her directions on braiding are as follows:
"To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. 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 2. 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 between. I did this but they rose so much they were touching. I recommend doing 2 separate baking sheets, with one challah on each.
Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. If baking challahs immediately, save egg for second brushing later on.
If baking immediately, let rise another house. If freezing, freeze them now.
If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375F.
Brush loaves again with egg wash. I brushed them for the second time right before placing them in the oven.
If using, sprinkle with seeds.
If you previously froze the loaves, remove them from the freezer 5 hours before baking.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool loaves on a rack.
Deb also says: 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.