I have a memory so old that it is melted with dreams and play-fantasies (Mommy, you can verify.) My mom and I were in our kitchen making challah with saffron. I remember having my arms above my head to reach the bowl. I think I was on a stool but not quite tall enough to see everything. I remember her showing me how to touch the dough and apply the egg wash, but mostly I remember the smell of saffron. I smelled it as we braided the loaf and again when I went upstairs to have a bath while the baking bread filled the house with the scent. In the image in my mind, I am looking in at myself in a cross-section of our house. Our house was split down the center like a dollhouse, the setting sun was a yellow circle of cardboard, and the stars emerged like holes poked through a cloth with a flashlight behind it. I remember my mom rubbing me with baby oil after my bath and then I was lying on the floor upstairs, entirely relaxed and content waiting for dinner. As the upstairs grew dark, the light and the smells from the kitchen downstairs were wafting up. Regardless of how blurry my recollection is, it's one of the warmest memories I have. The smell of saffron still has the power to whirl me back into that babyhood moment of candlelight and warm towels and encompassing calm. The connection between that scent and the memory is so strong that I can barely open the jar of red threads without having to pause what I'm doing and close my eyes. Even a whiff off my yellow stained fingers hours after crumbling a pinch into something will send me out of this world for a minute or two.
I almost never make my own challah now because it takes all day. However, it is such a treat when I can take the whole day and let the egg-cracking, kneading, waiting, braiding,waiting, and glazing be a journey into a deep sense of "home." For Rosh Hashanah, the challah is traditionally round, studded with raisins, and dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet and perfect year ahead. This recipe, because of the proportion of oil, makes a challah that has a crumb closer to a brioche than to a sweet, eggy bread. I'll give another variation at some point, hopefully.
Challah with Raisins and Saffron (adapted from A Blessing of Bread)
- 1 envelope instant yeast
- 500 g bread flour
- 3/4 C warm water
- 2 good pinches saffron
- 1/3-1 C mixed raisins, rinsed and plumped in hot water
- 3 large eggs, one for the glaze
- 1/2 C vegetable oil
- scant 1.5 tsp salt
- 1/4 C granulated sugar
Toast saffron gently in a small dry pan until slightly darker. Crumble either with fingers or mortar and pestle and dissolve in 1/4 of the water. Mix yeast and 100 g (~3/4C) of flour in a bowl. Add the saffron water, then fill the same measuring cup with the other 1/2 C of water (to get all the saffrony goodness) and add that to the slurry. Mix well and let sit uncovered for 20 minutes until bubbly.
Whisk 2 eggs, oil, sugar, and salt into the yeast slurry until blended and dissolved. Then, using a wooden spoon add all the flour at once and mix until incorporated. Knead in a mixer with a dough hook for about 4 minutes (level 4 on a KitchenAid) or oil your hands, turn out onto a work surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes max. The dough should be soft and smooth and should not be sticking to your surface. Add a T of water or flour if it seems too dry or wet. Knead in the raisins.
Place the dough into a clean, warm bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Prepare baking sheets by lining them with parchment/silpat or oiling them. Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide into four pieces. Three pieces will be rolled into long ropes, and the fourth will make rolls. For the ropes, gently flatten the pieces into long rectangles and then fold into thirds lengthwise to make a rope. Or simply roll them into snakes. Starting with the center, coil the rope into a spiral, winding it tightly around itself, and adding the two other ropes as you go along. Tuck the last end under tigthly, leaving a little tension. This will make a high rising spiral.
*Alternately, you can spiral the ropes loosely to make a flat spiral. Or divide the dough into two (rather than four) and make two braided loaves.
The fourth piece of dough can be shaped into three little rolls.
Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and proof until tripled in size, about 1.5 hours.
Half an hour before baking time, preheat the oven to 350°. If using two baking sheets, arrange the racks in the upper and lower third of the oven. If using just one, position the rack in the upper third.
Brush the loaves with egg glaze. I like to sprinkle just a pinch of sugar on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes (less for smaller loaves), turning the baking sheet after 20 minutes, until nice and golden. If "golden" is happening too fast, make a foil tent over the top of the loaf. Let cool on a rack. Make french toast if you have left after a couple days.