Hello, bread week! We meet again. Just after last week's cake week was actually a bread week. To be honest, I made this about a month ago, because I was fooled by the word "plaited" and my own cultural associations. To me, growing up, a "plaited," or, braided loaf was always called challah and it was for Friday night Shabbat dinner. A braided bread was a Jewish thing, always. So, I made this bread in preparation for my mom's annual Vodka Latke Dinner (where you drink vodka and eat latkes, naturally), thinking how cosmic it was that challah week was the same week of my mom's party.
Turns out you can braid a bread without it being a challah. Oops.
So, why is this bread not a challah in spirit, if it is indeed challah in shape? Challah is a type of enriched bread, meaning it has some sort of fat or sweetness added to it, above any beyond the flour+water+yeast that makes bread a bread. Challah has eggs in it. Brioche is a similar enriched bread, but uses butter, not eggs. Both are delicious and both are often used in French toast. Personally, I prefer challah. It may be nostalgia, but brioche is a bit too greasy for me--the butter makes the bread (dare I say) too rich, whereas the eggs gives a better balance of fat, and an altogether better loaf. And it's kosher so like, there's that.
This dough was frustratingly sticky. Not as bad as the rum babas, but definitely not an "easy" bread. And seeing as it was the second yeast-based dish I made in as many days, I was so over it. Tired of cleaning my countertop, of washing my hands. I wasn't tired of eating bread of course (especially with a pad of salted butter), but just of making it. I would have preferred a chocolate cake. Can I test bake wedding cakes again?
But the smell was intoxicating. There is nothing like unwrapping risen bread and the pleasant scent of yeast waft through the air. After coming back into the kitchen and seeing the dough has risen double its size, wanting to burst out of the container, after unwrapping it and smelling how alive the dough is... it's truly magical. At this point, I'm willing to clean my countertop a thousand times to eat such deliciousness.
And enriched breads (though this one is less enriched than a challah or brioche) are especially pliable and soft. If you've never kneaded and squeezed and handled fresh homemade bread dough, you're missing out. I mean, even if your bread turns out like a dense hockey puck, the very act of playing with the dough is so satisfying--doesn't take much to figure out why they named the child's toy Play-Doh.
At this point, we get to the technical aspect of the bread: the plaiting. Now, growing up, we always made the standard 3-strand challah breads, and that's how I learned to braid. I made a 6-strand challah bread once, many years ago, but I cheated a bit and just made two 3-strand breads (one larger than the other), and stacked them with the smaller on top of the larger. This beast, per Paul Hollywood, is an 8-strand plaited loaf, and he has a very specific way to go about it. Which I had to look out. And diagram.
You first start by dividing your dough into 8 roughly same-sized balls of dough. You can use a scale, but you know what? We're not working in a commercial kitchen and we're making a single loaf. So just eyeball it -- nobody's going to care.
The next part can be tedious if your dough is extremely elastic, which happens if it gets warm enough. If your dough starts to shrink back in on itself while rolling it out, throw it in the fridge for a few minutes, but not for long, or the dough will dry out.
You should be fine though, just roll out eight strands, squeeze them all together at the top, and get to braiding.
The braiding is actually fun, once you get in the flow of it. Basically, number the strands from 1-8 from left to right, and move them over and under each other according to a simple pattern. Each time you move one, they all effectively get renumbered (1-8, left to right), so #1 is always the left-most strand. Just take it slow and steady and you'll be fine.
And the results are pretty breathtaking. It will look like a mess until you have it all together and then you'll step back and go "whoa" and revel in your own amazingness.
The taste was delicious. I mean, it's a slightly enriched bread -- it could be better, it could be worse -- but what you're really going for here is less the taste and value of the bread itself, and more the caramelization you get with all of the braided nubs. That's what makes it so delicious and addictive to eat. Despite a clean slice shown below, my inclination when eating a braided loaf is to just grab at the nubs with my hands and rip the loaf apart little by little. Would I have rather had a challah bread than this bread to eat? Yes. But for a special occasion bread that you can just throw together, half-heartedly knead, and be ready in a couple hours, this is acceptable.
makes one 15" loaf
500 grams (1 pound + 2 ounces) ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 teaspoons ACTIVE DRY YEAST
1 1/2 cups (340 milliliters) (12 fluid ounces) WARM WATER (100F-110F)
2 teaspoons SALT
1 1/2 tablespoons OLIVE OIL
1 large EGG, beaten with a pinch of salt
1. Take 1/2 cup of the WARM WATER and whisk in the ACTIVE DRY YEAST, then leave for 10 minutes to activate -- the mixture should be bubbling and yeasty-smelling
2. Combine the FLOUR, SALT, OLIVE OIL, and yeast/water mixture, and stir to combine
3. Add the remaining warm water and mix until the dough becomes a shaggy dough, then turn out onto a floured surface
4. Knead dough by hand until the dough looks silky and stretches (about 10 miutes)
5. Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl, then turn to coat dough in oil, cover in plastic wrap, and leave to rise until doubled in size (about an hour)
6. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead to knock the dough back
7. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and roll each into a snake of about 16 inches long
8. Lay all the strands out, and pinch one end of all of them together to form a starting point for the braiding
9. Number the strands from 1-8 (left to right) in your head, knowing that every time you move a strand, you will re-number the strands (they are always 1-8 from left to right -- the strand does not retain its number as it moves); braid the strands as follows:
11. Preheat the oven to 400F
12. Brush the loaf with an EGG beaten with a little salt, and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the dough sounds hollow when tapped
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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