Previous to this, I can only recall one other time that I have eaten challah bread. It wasn't long ago, and it was immediately turned into french toast so I wasn't able to "actually" try it (not that I was complaining). However, for Easter my mother wanted to make an egg bread similar to one that her grandmother had made when she was younger. Unfortunately there is no record of that specific recipe. I made the suggestion of challah bread as lot of the descriptions seemed similar to what my mother was describing.
I have never made a proper yeast bread. For some reason it has always scared me, I'm not sure why. And though it had been some time since my mother had made bread, she relished the opportunity to get her hands dirty again. To her, kneading bread is a way to relieve stress (to me, it's a way to increase it :)). And with that in mind, I would be remiss to claim that this is my recipe in any way. I was the assistant baker on this one.
No changes to the recipe were made other than to halve it (and ignore the optional raisins). The one liberty that my mother did take was in the way that she braided the bread. Instead of making a loaf with six strands ours was made with three. This really wasn't intentional, it was more like we both equally misunderstood the instructions (like mother, like son I suppose). Granted my mother obviously knew what she was doing because one moment she had three ropes of dough and the next it was done.
Throughout the day I realized that my mother views the activation of yeast and the rising of dough with a wide-eyed wonderment typically reserved for a child's first encounter with Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse (or Batman, or Mario :)). She constantly remarked at how "neat" and "cool" it was :). For the most part I think this was because of the memories that surfaced as a result. Specifically, my mother recalled the scent of bubbling yeast as it wafted through her grandmother's house (it's amazing how a smell can produce such vivid memories).
With the bread finally in the oven my mother, much like myself, became her own worst critic; convinced that it wouldn't turn out. But when I checked the oven, what I saw looked absolutely perfect. Besides there was no way something that smelled that good could ever be bad. Towards the end of the bake time, there was some question as to when the bread was done. Eventually we broke out the instant thermometer to make absolutely sure it was ready.
Just looking at the challah bread as it cooled on my counter, I could tell that it would be fantastic. It had a wonderful crust, perfectly browned, and the smell was the definition of mouth watering. Unfortunately it had lost its crisp crust by the next day, but didn't look any less stunning. Just before lunch/dinner at my grandparents' place I sliced the bread for the feast to come. It's outer perfection was only matched by its inner perfection. And trust me when I say that it tasted even better than it looked. Soft, slightly chewy, and just lightly sweet, much like a good bagel. There's really nothing more to say then that. It was simply some of the best bread I've ever had and I couldn't wait to get the leftovers home for a sandwich (I made a ham sandwich with it. Is that wrong? :)).
Since I have very little experience with challah bread, I'm not sure I can say, definitively, that this is "the best", as the original recipe claims; but what I can say is that it's hard to imagine one better. My mother did mention that this bread was similar too, but not the same as, her grandmother's, which had a deeper yellow colour and a slightly different flavour; meaning that we have a reason to try again in the future.
You know what I was just thinking about? If a festival existed purely to celebrate terrific challah bread, would it then be called Challah-palooza?
Wow... I'm pretty ashamed of that one, though I'm sure my father is beaming with pride :).
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen4 cups all-purpose flour (520g) -- Note: you may have up to a 1/4 cup left over
3/4 package or 3/4 tbsp active dry yeast (6g)
1/2 tbsp + 1/4 cup sugar (14g + 50g)
1/2 tbsp salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup olive oil
Poppy seeds to finish
As I have nothing to add to the original directions you can find them here.
Instructions on braiding bread with 3,4, and 5 strands from Baking Bites.