(adapted from Bon Appetit)
1⁄2 c. sugar
2 envelopes dry yeast (or 4 1⁄2 t.)
1 T. salt
1 3⁄4 c. warm water (105 – 115 F.)
4 eggs at room temperature
1⁄2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
6 – 7 c. unbleached bread flour
2 T. milk or cream
poppy seeds or sesame seeds, optional
Combine sugar, yeast and salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty standing or handheld mixer.
Whisk in water, eggs, and butter.
Add 3 cups flour and mix with the dough hook until smooth, about 3 minutes.
(Do not use a food processor. If you don’t have a heavy-duty mixer, use those muscles and a wooden spoon.)
Add enough remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to form soft dough.
Knead on a floured surface until dough is satiny, about 10 minutes, kneading in more flour if sticky.
Grease a large bowl and add dough, turning to coat entire surface.
Cover bowl with towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled, about 1 1⁄4 hours.
Gently knead dough on lightly floured surface until deflated.
For large loaf: Cut of 1/3 of dough.*
Cover both pieces with towel and let rest 10 minutes.
Divide larger piece of dough into 3 pieces, and roll each into 14-inch rope.
Braid together, working from middle to ends.
(If you want a football-shaped challah, make the ropes fatter in the middle, so when you braid them, the center part is wider than the ends. A friend of mine uses oval aluminum disposable challah pans that help shape the final product.)
Pinch ends together.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place on prepared pan, tucking ends under.
Cut remaining dough into 3 pieces, and roll each into 9-inch rope.
Braid together, and set smaller braid atop larger, dampening the bottom of the smaller braid and pressing gently so it stays anchored.
Cover with waxed paper or a towel, and let rise in warm, draft-free area until doubled, about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Beat egg with milk or cream, and brush on dough.
Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds, if desired.
Bake until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 50 minutes.
Immediately transfer to rack and cool.
*For 2 medium loaves, cut dough in half. Divide each half into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into 8-inch rope. Form 2 braids. Transfer to 2 pans lined with parchment, and let rise as above. Bake about 45 minutes.
For variation, use 1 1⁄2 to 3 1⁄2 cups whole-wheat flour to replace equal amount of bread flour. Substitute honey for sugar. Dough may take a little longer to rise.