New Year's Challahzillah by A.J. Blauer
There's something about making a Rosh Hashanah challah that's the antithesis of everyday life. It's a painfully slow and sometimes introspective process that begins at dawn with you not going to work or school, but rather, coaxing a packet of dry yeast back to life with a spoonful of sugar in a bath of water warmed just-so. After a few minutes the yeast is encouraged with rich gifts of honey, eggs and oil, then smothered in too much white flour by aching-but-determined hands.
The dough needs a nap. It's happiest in the bowl it was born in, covered in a damp tea towel and warmed under the oven light. Give it a couple hours.
When the challah awakens puffed up and full of its own pungence, you've got yourself a fight. Punch and pound, smack and slam that dough until puffs of flour blast off the counter and your dough is back to its original size. Tough love, but your challah will be better for it. Quickly braid it onto a greased sheet and tuck it under its wet tea towel for a second nap under the stove light bulb.
You might be inclined to check your phone, your work emails. Don't. Your hands are a mess; best to delicately pick off these encrusted bits of dough one bit at a time as you contemplate your year.
What kind of year has this been? What have you done? What are you proud of? What do you regret? Were you thinking about those regrets when you pounded the dough so violently on the counter? Is now the time to clean the slate? Like these fingers, who might you attend to with some loving repentance? Do you have the courage to do that?
The challah will sleep all day if left alone; you'll need to wake it gently. Smooth it with a glistening egg wash and sprinkle it with poppy seeds and then return it to the oven to bake to a golden brown. Give it a playful thump on its backside to see if it's ready to greet your guests.
Serve it warm and let it be dismantled as it was created -- by hand. Let your guests tear great hunks from the challah, spread it with butter or honey, and indulge without reservation. And, having broken bread, use this moment to make amends.
2 ½ cups warm water (45C or just kinda warm)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (slightly more than a packet)
1 teaspoon of sugar
½ cup liquid honey
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups unbleached flour
Poppy seeds (optional)
Servings: This recipe feeds at least a dozen people who want to eat an unhealthy amount of white bread. It's a Challahzilla!
1) Rinse your mixing bowl with hot water until it's nice and warm. Add your kinda warm water, sprinkle the yeast on top, and then stir in a spoonful of sugar to get the chemistry of yeast life going.
2) While you're waiting, carefully count out your cups of flour and set them aside. (Counting while mixing is risky -- you're going to get tired and might add too little/much flour.)
3) Mix the oil, honey, salt and two eggs into the yeasty water. It should look disgusting. Like, really gross. (Don't worry... the next step will magically transform it from a viscous brew to delicious-looking dough.)
4) One cup at a time, blend in the flour into your disgustingly viscous brew. After the 5th cup, your dollar-store whisk will start to break, so use your (clean!) hands to work in the remaining flour. Be patient -- add a little at a time and knead it through and through until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky.
5) Cover your dough with a damp tea towel and put it somewhere warm & cozy. The oven light provides a nice amount of cozy. Give it 90 minutes to two hours to let it rise.
6) The dough will have doubled in bulk. Dump it onto a flour-dusted counter and punch the hell out of it. Then fold it over and punch it again. Keep doing this until you feel better.
7) Divide the dough into three balls, roll each into a long snake, pinch the ends together and then then braid the snakes into, well, a braid. Slip the braided dough onto a greased cookie sheet, cover it again with the damp tea towel and let it rise for another hour in its cozy place.
8) Peel off the tea towel *slowly* so you don't mangle the braids.
Now beat your last egg and and brush it onto the dough until it's glistening. (You can throw out any excess egg goo.) Sprinkle poppy seeds if you've got 'em and put the dough into the oven at 375F for about 40min.
The bread should turn a deep golden brown and make a delightfully hollow "thump" when you smack it on its belly. Let it cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.