For this Famous Fridays edition, I want to tell you about a cookbook I've had on my bookshelf for years and one that I've turned to many times for classic homestyle recipes, Mama Leah's Jewish Kitchen by Leah Loeb Fischer. It's full of wonderful traditional dishes like noodle pudding, blintzes, brisket, stuffed cabbage, latkes...and this simple straightforward recipe for challah that's the best I've ever made!
Unfortunately, the book is out of print now, but you can definitely find it on Amazon. What I love so much about Mama Leah's recipes are that they feel like your own mother or grandmother wrote them down for you with their special little tips, stories and preferences. Also, none of her recipes have a ton or steps or hard to find ingredients, making them perfect for the home cook. I've tried a few challah recipes from fancy-schmanzy cookbooks lately and none of them even come close to the deliciousness of this challah!
You start by mixing yeast and warm water together and letting it sit for about 10 minutes until it's frothy. The rest of the mixing gets done in your electric mixer and if you have a dough hook, this is the time to use it. Once the dough is all mixed, you set it in a bowl to rise for a couple of hours, a la I Love Lucy!
Next you turn it out onto a board and knead it a bit--
Once the dough is smooth and elastic you cut it in half and divide each half into 6 pieces. Then you roll each piece into a rope measuring somewhere between 12-14 inches and pinch all 6 pieces together at the top. Next you start to braid, which isn't difficult in terms of handling the dough, but can be a little bit of a visual challenge until you get the hang of it. You can use a 4 or 5 strand method but I think the 6 strand looks the prettiest. Here's a handy website to show you how to braid a challah using the 6 strand method, http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-braid-challah-6-strand-method/
Brush on a little beaten egg mixed with water to give it a great shine and then bake it for about 45 minutes and the results are amazing! The crust is golden brown and chewy and the inside is light, spongy, slightly sweet and wonderful as is or spread with a little butter. The next time you're home for a bunch of hours and feel like tackling a small project, try this. I guarantee you'll love it! Thanks Mama Leah, for keeping all the old recipes alive!
Mama Leah's Challah-Famous Fridays
Makes 2 medium sized challahs
Prep Time: 3 plus hours for mixing and rising; Bake Time: 45-50 minutes
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup corn oil
- 5 large eggs
- 6-8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1. If you have a stand mixer, use that bowl and pour the lukewarm water into it. Otherwise, use another large bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the water. Give it a tiny stir and let it sit for about 10 minutes, until the mixture looks frothy. Add the rest of the sugar, salt, corn oil, and 4 eggs. Beat well to mix (use a hand mixer if you don't have a hands-free mixer).
2. Gradually add 6 cups of the flour, beating at low speed. You can also do this entirely by hand if you don't have a mixer--it will just take a little bit longer. Once the dough is soft and pliable and holds together, stop mixing and change to the dough hook. You may have to add more flour to get to that point. Mix the dough at medium speed for 10-15 minutes until the dough is very elastic and no longer sticky. Add more flour if you need to along the way. If you're not using a mixer, you turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead it for about 15-20 minutes or until the dough is very elastic and no longer sticky.
3. Place a small bit of oil in a large bowl (you can just wash, dry and oil the one you've been using if it's large enough) and swirl it around so that it coats the bowl. Place the dough into the bowl, cover it with a towel and let it stand in a warm place for 1 1/2-2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size. The warmer the area, the quicker this will happen. On cold days, it may take longer for the dough to rise.
4. Once dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and place it onto a floured surface. Knead it for a few minutes until it's smooth and elastic. Then, divide the dough in half and divide each half into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 12-14 inch rope.
4. Take 6 of the ropes and connect them at the top by pinching them together. It's easiest if you now think of the ropes as 1L, 2L, 3L (from the left) and 1R ,2R, 3R (from the right). Take the first strand on the right (1R) and move it to the middle between 3L and 3R. Now take the second strand from the left (2L) and move it all the way across to the far right. This will now become 1R. Next take the farthest strand to the left (1L) and move it to the center between 3L and 3R. Take the second strand from the right (2R) and move it across to the far left. This is now 1L. Continue braiding with this pattern till you're done, 1L to the middle, 2R to the left, etc. Here's a great website with pictures that takes the mystery out of the braiding process--http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-braid-challah-6-strand-method/
5. Once the braiding is done, pinch the ends together and tuck it under the loaf. Now go to the top of the loaf and tuck that end under as well. Transfer the loaf to a baking sheet sprinkled with a bit of cornmeal, cover with a towel, move to a warm place and let rise for 1 hour or until the loaf has doubled in bulk. Repeat with second loaf.
5. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water and using a pastry brush, brush the egg all over the challahs. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown and the challah sounds hollow when you tap it. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool before serving.
6. Challah keeps at least 4-5 days, well wrapped at room temperature. Leftovers make wonderful french toast or bread pudding.
Note: Recipe adapted from Mama Leah's Jewish Kitchen by Leah Loeb Fischer.