Staff of Life

Bread is the simplest of foods, but many people think making it requires some sort of expertise.

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The process is completely straightforward. I’m not sure how it became shrouded in mystery, as if yeast were an outlandish ingredient and not something floating around in the air we breathe, but I am quite sure just about anyone can make a loaf of bread.

This challah is so pretty, and nicely sweet. It is not a traditional challah, as it includes milk, but there’s room on the table for tradition and innovation, yes?

Vanilla Challah

4 1/2 cups flour, divided

4 Tablespoons sugar

1/2 Tablespoon active dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup warm milk

2 eggs, plus 1 egg for eggwash

4 Tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon to oil bowl and 1 teaspoon for eggwash

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 Tablespoon honey

Whisk 1 cup flour with yeast, sugar, and salt.

Add warm milk. You want it to be warm enough to wake the yeast up, but not so hot it kills the yeast. 40 seconds in the microwave works for me.

Add 2 lightly beaten eggs, 4 Tablespoons olive oil, honey, and vanilla.

Mix until smooth.

Add the rest of the flour a cup at a time.

Turn onto floured surface and knead til springy, 3-5 minutes.

Place in a deep bowl lightly greased with olive oil.

Turn it over once so it’s coated with oil, then cover the bowl with a dishtowel and set it in a warm spot.

Let it sit for 1 1/2 – 2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with Silpat or spray with oil.

Divide the dough into 3 equal parts and roll each into a snake about 20″ long. Keep the middle of the snakes a bit wider than the ends.

Lay the three pieces side by side, almost touching.

Begin in the middle and braid towards yourself, then turn the baking sheet and braid from the middle towards yourself again, this time moving the outside snakes under the center one rather than over. This will give you a neat braid.

Preheat the oven to 350 and let the dough rise on top of the stove on its tray, covered with a dishcloth.

After 30-40 minutes, whisk 1 egg and 1 teaspoon of olive oil and brush on top of loaf.

Bake the loaf about 40 minutes, until it is golden and sounds hollow when you rap the bottom.

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