It took some time, but I’ve finally gotten my challah just how I like it.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk 1 packet of active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons for those who use jars of yeast) and 1 teaspoon of honey into 2/3 cup of warm water. You want the water to feel warm to your hand, but not hot (about 110 degrees). Let this hang out until it gets foamy, about 10 minutes. With a spoon, mix in 1/4 cup honey, 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 large eggs, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 4 cups flour, 4 teaspoons ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon sweet almond extract and 1 teaspoon vanilla. When it begins to hold together like a dough, let your stand mixer’s dough hook take over and knead about 6 minutes on low. Remove this dough ball to a lightly floured surface, give that stand mixer bowl a quick wash, dry it, and use olive oil to lightly coat the inside of the bowl. Transfer the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place it in one of the warm areas in your house to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
To make by hand, follow as above until the dough begins to take shape in your mixing bowl, then turn out on a lightly floured surface. Knead by hand for about 10 minutes, until it feels smooth and stretchy. Clean and oil your mixing bowl, return the dough to the oiled bowl and let rise.
At some point during your rise, mix together: 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 teaspoons granulated sugar. This is also a great time to decide what you want your braid to look like. The braid pictured is a three strand braid formed into a circle. If you’re doing a four strand braid, divide your dough into halves instead of into thirds, and, after stretching your two ropes, cut in half. If this all seems overwhelming, there are some great YouTube videos that show different ways to braid challah, and you’ve got an hour before you have to make big decisions. Go forth and conquer.
After the dough has doubled in size, cut into three roughly even dough balls. One by one, roll these out into a rectangle. Using a sifter, sift the cinnamon sugar mixture over your dough, focusing on the center. Roll along the longest end to give yourself a cigar-shaped dough rope. Stretch the ropes to give yourself lots of braiding material. For the donut shape pictured, braid the three ropes together as you would a normal braid, then shape into a donut and pinch the ends of the ropes together. I like to braid first then shape the braid around a glass to keep the shape round, before pinching the ends together. Transfer your braided dough to a silicone or parchment lined baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk one egg and a tablespoon of water together. Using a pastry brush, brush this egg-wash onto your braid, avoiding getting egg on the silicone or parchment paper. Let this rise for approximately 1 hour. Brush again with egg wash and add 1/3 cup of sliced almonds. Crushed unsalted pistachios would also be stellar.
Bake approximately 35 minutes at 375. If you go with the round four strand braid, bump that up to 45 minutes because there’s a lot of dough in the center. If your bread is browning too quickly, cover with foil. Let cool on a wire rack before serving.
For my nut-allergy friends or those who simply prefer chocolate: in lieu of sweet almond extract, use orange extract. Instead of cinnamon and sugar in the center, use extra small semi-sweet chocolate morsels. It’ll make your dough ropes bumpier but don’t be deterred. I like to dust a little powdered sugar over the top of these orange-chocolate loaves, but you do you.
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