With Pride rapidly approaching, I wanted to combine two of my favorite things: bread and rainbows.
I’ve been baking challah almost every weekend for almost five months and have tried a variety of flavors, such as herb, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, fig, and, memorably, Nutella. (Hopefully some of these will make it onto this blog eventually, once I photograph them properly.) Until now I’d never experimented with any kind of food coloring, so I thought I’d give it a Google and see if anyone’s even done it.
Unsurprisingly, someone has–Amy Kritzer, the blogger behind the delightfully-named What Jew Wanna Eat. I borrowed some of Amy’s ideas for this recipe and our results end up looking very similar, but I used my own base dough recipe.
Like Amy, I decided to use gel food coloring. It’s much more concentrated and less liquidy than liquid food coloring (well, duh), which makes it more ideal for something like a bread dough. You’d need a ton of liquid food coloring to make it bright enough, and that would end up making the dough runny and you’d need to add more flour, which would be a mess.
I also learned that powder food coloring exists for situations when you can’t use liquids at all, which is cool.
Gel food coloring isn’t something you can find anywhere. My local grocery store doesn’t stock it. I found it at a little spice shop that’s part of the North Market downtown. Otherwise, I’m not sure where it’s available. Probably online like everything else besides affordable shoes.
The tricky decision was when to apply the food coloring. In Amy’s recipe, she does it after she finishes making the actual dough and separates it into six parts. The alternative would be to do it at the very beginning with the rest of the liquid ingredients, before the flour is added. That would mean separating the egg/water/yeast/oil/honey/sugar mixture into six parts, dividing the total flour into six parts, and basically mixing a little baby dough in each color. Sounds like a mess, but the advantage is that mixing in the food coloring would be very easy.
Unfortunately, though, you don’t know how much food coloring you need before you add the flour, which will obviously dilute any color quite a bit. Plus the doughs will be ready to rise at vastly different times, leading to six very differently-sized risen doughs at the end. Not ideal.
So, I mixed my entire dough, flour and all, and then divided it into six parts using a digital scale. Then I added a different color to each portion, which was very difficult because it was a solid fucking ball of dough. It required lots of stretching, tearing, and recombining the dough. It would probably have helped to have a stand mixer.
That’s another thing about my challah process, incidentally–it’s all by hand. I’m not opposed to kitchen gadgets (obviously: I own a rice cooker, a citrus juicer, a slow cooker, a blender, a hand blender, an ice cream machine, a dutch oven, a toaster oven, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting, plus my friend’s food processor takes up semi-permanent residence in my kitchen). I do, however, really enjoy the process of hand-mixing and kneading dough. For that purpose, I have a manual equivalent of a stand mixer’s dough hook. Unsurprisingly, it’s called a dough whisk.
The recipe I use for my base challah dough is adapted from this one, by Jonathan Melendez of The Candid Appetite, with some changes. (I like to use both sugar and honey because why not.) I’ve tried other dough recipes, but this one’s my favorite, and maybe there are better ones but I don’t really care.
So, let’s get the fuck started!
- 1½ packages (1½ tablespoons or 11 grams) active dry yeast (if you bake often, like me, stay away from those annoying as fuck packets and just buy a little glass jar of active dry yeast that can be stored in the fridge for up to six months)
- ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon (12 grams)
- 1¾ cups (437.5 ml) warm water
- ½ cup (118 ml) vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 3 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon (15 grams) salt
- 8½ cups (1,063 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg, whisked with a splash of water (for egg wash)
- large mixing bowl
- at least six smaller bowls
- digital kitchen scale
- measuring cups and spoons
- dough whisk
- plenty of plastic wrap
- two baking sheets
- parchment paper
- silicone pastry brush
- an oven would probably be helpful
Here’s what I did:
- In a small bowl, lightly stir together the yeast, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and warm water. Place in a warm place, preferably, an oven that is turned off, for about 15 minutes, or until frothy and foamy. If your yeast has not foamed, then toss it and start over. It’s important for the yeast to activate properly.
- In the big bowl, combine the yeast mixture, the remaining ½ cup sugar, oil, eggs, honey, vanilla extract, and salt together. Whisk until completely combined. Add the flour about a cup at a time, mixing each batch in completely before adding the next. I find it helpful to measure the flour out by weight in a separate bowl first, and then just pour it in bit by bit. Switch from the regular whisk to the dough whisk once the dough becomes too thick.
- Near the end of this process, you’ll probably need take the dough out of the bowl and start mixing in flour manually. Remove the cat from the counter or kitchen table, wipe it down, make sure it’s dry, and dust it with flour. Turn the dough out onto this surface and add the rest of the flour to it. If it’s still sticky, add more flour. If it’s dry, add more water. Knead the dough until it’s smooth.
- Weigh the dough using the scale. Do some math and divide the dough into six approximately-equal portions. Say a prayer to your deity or cat of choice.
- Cover your surface with plastic wrap or some other form of protection, if you don’t want to regret your life. Take each dough portion, flatten it, and apply some food coloring to it. Mix the dough in your hands, adding more food coloring as needed until it reaches a nice bright color, and forming it into a ball. You’ll want to start with the lightest color to minimize color contamination, since the surface will get messy. Alternatively, you can switch out the plastic wrap each time and hate your life. Up to you. I went yellow-orange-green-red-blue-purple. I also wiped my hands off with a paper towel in between each one, but be forewarned that it will stain your hands terrifyingly until you wash them a few times.
- Put each dough ball into a well-oiled bowl. I like to use the pastry brush to oil teh bowls. Cover the bowls with plastic wrap and put them somewhere warm to rise for an hour. During the winter, I like to put dough over the heating vent or into a turned-off oven to rise. During the summer, a windowsill will do.
- After an hour, the dough should’ve doubled in size. If not, give it some more time. Once it’s doubled, punch it down. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean actually punching the dough; that’s probably not good. Simply push it down with the heel of your hand, producing a satisfying squelching noise. Then give it a few more kneads. Then reform it into a vaguely-round shape, cover it back up with plastic wrap, and let it rise for another half hour.
- Now it’s time to actually shape and braid the challah. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the cat from your work surface again. Probably wipe down the surface since it’s had a cat on it and cats step in their own poop. Divide each dough ball in half, since you’re going to make two loaves. Shape each half into a long strand by rolling it out on the surface and continually stretching it as you roll. Dough is elastic, but it hates change. It will start to contract again once you let go of it, so just keep rolling until it stays a reasonable length.
- Arrange the six strands in rainbow order (or not, I guess) and braid them. Since you’re making a six-strand braid, you’ll probably want to check out a tutorial on how to do that. I prefer method 2 from this one, but there are probably lots of other ways. Repeat with the other dough halves to form your second loaf.
- Whisk an egg with a splash of water to form your egg wash. Line your two baking sheets with parchment paper, carefully place the loaves on them, and brush them liberally with egg wash using the pastry brush.
- Bake the challah for about 35 minutes, until it’s golden-brown on top and sounds hollow when tapped. It’s a good idea to take the sheets out midway through and rotate them, and switch racks if you have them on separate ones.
- You’re done! Cut it open and enjoy how fucking cool it looks.
But wait, there’s more! A week later I hadn’t finished the challah (I know, weird), so I made french toast with it. I’m pretty simple about my french toast–whisk some eggs with milk (coconut milk in my case), add a bit of salt, soak the bread, and then fry it on butter. That’s it!