Whole Wheat Challah alla Italiana, a set on Flickr.
Passover has just ended. Being the terrible Jew that I am and living in northern Italy where jews don’t exist, I didn’t even realize it was passover. Anyways, I am celebrating the end of passover with a giant loaf of leavened bread. Even if I could find Matzah in this country, I’m not sure I would eat it. In celebration I have decided to make the beautiful eggy challah bread eaten at the Jewish Sabbath meal.
As I am living in Italy, I initially had some difficulties finding the proper ingredients. Yeast here is not the dry active yeast we find in packets in the United States. There are multiple strange forms, but the one I found most suitable comes in a refrigerated block form called lievito di birra. This is the same kind of yeast that is commonly used in pizza, so if you can’t find it at your local supermarket, ask at a local pizzeria.
Be warned that this is a slow rise bread, meaning it takes about five hours to make. I have split the rising into 2 periods, but the recipe is flexible.
Note: This recipe is adapted to Italian baking supplies from three recipes found on the internet.
1 cube refrigerated lievito di birra (you can usually find this near the butter in bigger supermarkets)
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) warm water (45 degrees C)
1 cup (200 gr) flour (I use whole wheat flower, but most bread makers will argue that bread flower interacts better with the yeast)
1/3 cup (78ml) oil (I use olive, but vegetable may be better)
1/3 cup (78 ml) honey (add more to taste)
1 tsp salt
4 cups (800 gr) whole wheat flour (I use pane nero flour a mix of many grains, which I find lends a deep rich flavor to the bread)
1 egg for coating bread
1. In a large bowl, mix yeast, warm water and 1 cup of flour into a thin batter, and let stand until the mixture shows frothy bubbles, about 10 minutes. Stir in vegetable oil, honey, 3 eggs, and salt until well combined. Add in the rest of the flour until you have a slightly sticky dough that doesn’t stick too much to your hands.
2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding more flour if needed to form a slightly sticky dough. Form the dough into a round shape. Lightly oil a bowl with a paper towel to collect excess oil. Place the dough in the bowl, and turn the dough over a few times to oil the surface. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a plastic bag. Let dough rise 1-2 hours in a warm, draft-free place until doubled. I leave mine in an unheated oven.
3. Punch down the dough by pressing down with the fist of your hand. Knead it a few times to remove some of the bubbles. Depending on the size desired of your final loaves cut dough into 2 equal-sized pieces or leave in one for giant loaf. Cut the first piece into 3 equal parts. Set the rest of the dough aside under a cloth to prevent drying out while you braid the first loaf.
4. Working on a floured surface, roll the small dough pieces into ropes about the thickness of your thumb and about 12 inches long. Ropes should be fatter in the middle and thinner at the ends. Pinch 3 ropes together at the top and braid them. Starting with the strand to the right, move it to the left over the middle strand (that strand becomes the new middle strand.) Take the strand farthest to the left, and move it over the new middle strand. Continue braiding, alternating sides each time, until the loaf is braided, and pinch the ends together and fold them underneath for a neat look. Repeat for the other loaf. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
5. Preheat an oven to 175 degrees C. Beat 1 egg with 1 teaspoon of water in a small bowl, and brush the egg mixture over the braided challah loaves.
Bake in the preheated oven until the tops are a deep golden brown and the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack before slicing.