Have you ever picked out a word or theme of the year instead of doing New Year’s Resolutions? I did two years ago, and really enjoyed the flexibility of a theme as opposed to resolutions. I decided my theme for that year was going to be “saying yes,” and that mindset led to a year where I stepped up in a lot of ways and did things I never thought I would. This year, I have picked the most gigantically boring word: structure. But I think a better sense of routine and organization in my personal life will really help me live in a less stressful way. I am not a routine person at all, so this will definitely be a challenge for me. But in a good way; structuring my life and time on my own is a part of growing up.
Because of this structure theme I have going for myself, I think the most appropriate recipe to start the new year is bread. Bread is not hard, but it takes time and sticking to a schedule. Challah bread is an old favorite of mine – I started making it in back in high school and tested lots of recipes to find the perfect one for the 4-H county fair. Yes, I was cool and invited to a lot of parties, thanks for asking.
As a side note – I have a weird thing for traditional Jewish recipes, apparently. I think it has to do with how singularly and voraciously I read and followed Smitten Kitchen‘s recipes. Hers was the first blog I regularly read, and I can’t tell you the number of recipes I’ve made from it. I made tons of latkes for my high school graduation party, and got really into rugelach for a while. With the aforementioned challah bread obsession, I am essentially your typical Jewish grandmother, except I am 21, not Jewish, and the only Yiddish word I know is chutzpah.
But challah bread is the recipe I come back to several times a year without fail. The process of making it has become familiar and comforting – kneading, punching down the dough, braiding. The end result is a fragrant, tender bread that begs to be torn off in chunks and eaten warm. It doesn’t need much, maybe just a bit of butter melting on top. Make it, and I promise it will become a favorite for you too.
Adapted from Joan Nathan in The New York Times
1 1/2 packets of active dry yeast (1 1/2 tbsp)
1 3/4 lukewarm water (I heat tap water in the microwave for 45 seconds)
1 tbsp + 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
5 large eggs
1 tbsp salt, preferably kosher
8-8 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
Poppy seeds for sprinkling (optional – I don’t use them)
In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast, water, and one tablespoon of sugar. Let sit for 5 minutes, or until slightly foamy. Whisk in the oil, then eggs, one at a time. Whisk in remaining sugar and salt. Add flour cup by cup, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, until it holds together enough to knead. It should be sticky but not wet, without any lumps of flour.
Turn your bread onto a well-floured surface. Coat your hands in lots of flour, and sprinkle a little on top of the dough for good measure. Knead well (about 5-8 minutes ), adding flour as necessary until the dough is no longer sticky to the touch and forms a cohesive ball. Transfer the dough to a oiled bowl – I generally let it rest for a minute while I wash and dry the bowl I already used – and cover with saran wrap or a tea towel. Let rise for one hour in a warm place.
At an hour, punch down the dough and re-cover. Let rise for another 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out and divide in half with an un-serrated knife. Put aside the other half. If braiding, divide the remaining dough into six parts and follow these instructions, found under #4 in the recipe. If making regular loaves, grease your loaf pan and tuck the dough in them. Beat one egg and brush over loaves. This is what makes the shiny, shellac crust on challah bread. Cover and let rise for another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush another wash of egg onto each loaf. If the egg drips onto the pan, wipe up with a paper towel to avoid burned egg bits. Sprinkle poppy seeds on top if you wish.
Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until golden brown and toothpicks come out clean. Eat immediately. (It’s the only way.)