I like to make bread. It’s therapeutic to get your hands in the dough and stretch it and work it. When we were starting the business, I spent most of the first year baking bread.
Bread is living—the yeast is alive. You get to nurse the yeast along and watch the dough rise. Caring for yeast is a lot like caring for plants: You have to give the yeast water and food and create a nice environment for it. I suspect that people with green thumbs make good bread bakers.
A little sugar feeds the yeast though yeast is capable of converting the starch in flour to energy. Yeast doesn’t like salt. It impedes the growth of the yeast and too much can kill it.
Yeast is picky about temperature. It grows best at close to eighty degrees. It grows very slowly at 50 degrees and temperatures at 130 degrees will kill yeast. Most recipes call for water at 105 or 110 degrees. That’s too warm for yeast but the intention is to warm the other ingredients and create a dough of about 80 degrees.
A few years ago, we met at my brother Clark’s house in Houston—my four brothers and their spouses. We gathered from Idaho, Utah, and Alaska. We don’t get together often and we hung around the house and talked and stayed for several days.
Clark’s got a big kitchen with double ovens and I couldn’t help myself—I baked. There were cookies and scones and, of course, bread. With all that baking, the biggest hits were the braided breads. We made a New York Bagel Bread, a huge showy loaf braided with onions and poppy seeds. That was the bread for adults. We made a .Chocolate Challah Bread, another braided bread with chocolate three ways: chocolate bread, chocolate filling, and chocolate frosting.
You’ll find that braiding bread is as fun as it is impressive. What follows are recipes for both of these breads plus general instructions for braiding bread so that you can braid your own. You can braid any bread. Use your favorite bread recipe or grab a couple mixes and braid two or three types of bread together. A dark rye, a brown bread, and white bread braided together make an attractive loaf. (We sell over 100 bread mixes at The Prepared Pantry.)
Instructions for Braiding Bread
Mix the bread according to package or recipe instructions. You want a slightly firmer dough than most doughs so reduce the water called for by a couple tablespoons. You can always dribble more water in if needed. Place the bread dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled. Prepare a large baking sheet by greasing and sprinkling with cornmeal.
Once raised, use a knife to divide the dough into three equal pieces for each loaf. I use a kitchen scale to make sure the dough is divided equally. Roll the pieces under the palms of your hands into three long ropes. You may need to let each rest for five minutes before completing to allow the dough to relax to get the proper shape. If you want the loaf to be larger in the center and less rectangular shaped, make the ropes thicker in the middle and tapered toward the ends.
Braid the three ropes as shown in a common three strand braid just as if you were braiding pigtails. (Some people find it easier to create a symmetrical shape if they start braiding from the center.) When you get to the ends, wet them, pinch them together, and tuck them under. You should have a neat, symmetrical loaf when you are through. You can shape the loaf somewhat with your hands. If you don’t like how the loaf looks, simply pull the braids apart and start again.
Place the finished loaf on the prepared sheet. Be sure to allow room on your sheet for expansion.) Cover the loaf with plastic and let it rise until doubled, about one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare a glaze by whisking one egg with one-half tablespoon of water. Just before baking and when the loaf has fully doubled, remove the plastic wrap and gently brush glaze over the entire surface of the loaf. Sprinkle the top with poppy seeds or sesame seeds as desired. (Tip the loaf so that you can sprinkle seeds on the sides as well.)
Bake the bread for 20 minutes then cover the bread with a large sheet of aluminum foil to protect the top. Continue baking for another 20 minutes or until the bread crust is a deep golden brown. The interior of the loaf should register 190 degrees with an insta-read thermometer.
Use an egg turner to loosen the bread from the pan and transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.
Chocolate Challah Bread
Challah is a traditional bread baked for the Jewish Sabbath. It has become popular with everyone, everywhere. It’s attractive and has a firm, egg-rich texture that works for dinner, sandwiches, or French toast. It is typically braided with three, four, or six strands of dough. (The braided strands are symbolic of love.)
In this version, we used three strands. We added chocolate for the dough and a chocolate cream cheese filling and then we drizzled the bread with a chocolate cream cheese glaze. Don’t let the filling throw you: You wrap it up just like you do for cinnamon bread or cinnamon rolls.)
It may not be real challah but it is absolutely scrumptious—maybe our best chocolate bread ever. This recipe can be doubled.
Chocolate Challah Bread Recipe
3 to 3 1/2 cups bread flour
1 packet instant active dry yeast
1 teaspoon dough conditioner
3/4 cup water, heated to 110 degrees
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg at room temperature
For the filling
5 ounces cream cheese
1 ounce semi-sweet baking chocolate, melted
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Chocolate glaze directions follow.
1. With the dough hook and your stand-type mixer, mix about one cup of the flour, the yeast, the conditioner, and the heated water until smooth. This will hydrate the instant yeast. If you are using other than instant yeast, hydrate the yeast separately.
2. Add the brown sugar, cocoa, butter, salt, and egg and mix. Add enough of the remaining bread flour to make a soft but not tacky dough. Knead until the gluten is developed, about four minutes at medium speed. Set the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let it stand until doubled, about one hour.
3. To make the filling, beat the cream cheese until soft and smooth. Add the melted chocolate while it is still hot and mix until smooth. Add the sugar, flour, egg yolk, vanilla, and nutmeg and mix until smooth.
4. Once the dough has risen, use a knife to divide the dough into three equal pieces. Roll the dough pieces with a rolling pin to rectangles 15 inches by 5 inches.
Spread one-third of the filling down the center of each leaving a one-inch border with no filling. Roll the rectangle into fifteen-inch long ropes with the filling inside. The filling will be captured pinwheel style in the dough as if you were making miniature cinnamon rolls. Pinch any seams together and roll the ropes with your hands on the counter until smooth.
5. Braid the three ropes as if you were braiding pigtails. (Some people find it easier to create a symmetrical shape if they start braiding from the center.) When you get to the ends, wet them, pinch them together, and tuck them under. You should have a neat, symmetrical loaf when you are through. You can shape the loaf somewhat with your hands.
6. Prepare a large baking sheet by greasing it and sprinkling it with cornmeal. Place the loaf on the pan, cover the loaf, and let it rise until doubled, about one hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the bread for 20 minutes then cover the bread with a large sheet of aluminum foil and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes to until done. The bread should “thump” when tapped on the bottom and the interior of the loaf should register 190 degrees with an insta-read thermometer. Let the bread cool on a wire rack.
8. While the bread is cooling, make the glaze. With a hand-held mixer, beat one ounce cream cheese with one teaspoon vanilla. Add 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons cocoa with enough warm water to make a glaze of drizzling consistency. Drizzle the chocolate glaze generously over the bread.
New York Bagel Bread
I’m not sure why they call this bagel bread—bagels are boiled before they are baked—but this recipe makes an incredible bread.
This bread is most impressive when made into a giant loaf of three or four pounds. Select a bread recipe or bread mixes that will make two loaves. It should be lean bread, that is, a recipe that calls for no eggs and a minimum amount of oil or butter. The bread should not be sweet so choose a recipe with little sugar.
Mix the dough according to directions. If the dough is too wet to handle, add another tablespoon or two of flour. Grease a large bowl. Remove the dough to the bowl and turn once to coat both sides. Cover and let rise until doubled, usually over an hour.
Prepare a large cookie or baking sheet by greasing and sprinkling with cornmeal. The sheet should be at least 20 inches long.
Turn the risen dough out onto a countertop. Divide the dough with a sharp knife into two parts, one piece twice as large as the other. Divide both the larger and smaller piece into three equals pieces so that you have six pieces of dough. Roll the pieces on the counter under your palms to form ropes about an inch in diameter. The larger ropes should be 18 to 20 inches long; the smaller ropes about 16 inches.
Braid the longer ropes together and the smaller ropes together in three strand braids. Pinch the ends together to keep the braids from unraveling as the dough rises. Place the larger braid on the sheet and center the smaller braid on top of the larger. Cover with plastic and let rise until well doubled and very puffy, about another hour.
Place two tablespoons water and two tablespoons of oil in a bowl. Chop one medium onion and add it to the oil and water mixture. Add 2 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds and 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder to the mixture. Stir and let sit while the dough rises.
In a cup, create an egg wash by mixing one egg yolk with one tablespoon water and stirring with a fork or whisk until well mixed.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Once the dough has risen, brush the loaf with the egg wash to coat. Spoon the topping on the loaf as shown. Sprinkle the loaf with course salt and place the bread in the oven.
Bake the loaf for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Turn the temperature down to 350 degrees and loosely cover the top of the loaf with aluminum foil to keep from burning the topping. Bake for another 15 minutes. Remove the loaf from the oven and check for doneness. If you have a thermometer, the center of the loaf should test 195 degrees. Turn the oven off and place the loaf back in the oven for five minutes without the aluminum foil cover. The last five minutes in the oven will develop a thicker crust. Cool on a wire rack before slicing.
Dennis is the founder and general manager of The Prepared Pantry www.preparedpantry.com in Rigby, Idaho, a full-line kitchen store and online retailer of food, baking mixes and ingredients, and kitchen tools.