To shake things up a bit, I tried my hand at a 4-strand braid this year. It is delightfully easy and makes a beautiful bread. I'll walk you through it below. Next time, I need to decide in advance to make it round, because then instead of pinching the dough at the top, I'll leave it loose and can more artfully weave it with the strands at the bottom when I swing it around into a circle. Instead, I had to wrap one strand completely around the loaf. Oh well, it was still gorgeous and so delicious that there were not enough leftovers for french toast. I'll just have to make more!
Challah is easy, but there are a few tricks. Also, it takes time: about 4 1/2 hours from start to finish. Most of it is not active time, but you do have to hang around and punch it down every half-hour or hour. Here's how to make it:
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup oil (you can use butter, but my recipe calls for oil and it's what I always use)
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1/2 cup very warm water
10 cups of flour (you may not use all of it)
1 tablespoon water
poppy seeds, sesame seeds, salt, chopped onion for the top (optional)
raisins or chocolate chips (optional)
Combine the milk, sugar, salt, and oil/butter in a small pan. Heat gently to lukewarm. (If using butter, heat until the butter melts, then cool to lukewarm.)
Beat eggs in a small bowl and reserve 2 tablespoons.
Sprinkle yeast into warm water in a large bowl (I use my stand mixer). Stir (with a spoon or rubber spatula) until the yeast dissolves, then stir in the milk mixture and the eggs. Beat in 4 cups of flour until smooth. Beat in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Now, you can knead by hand or with the mixer. To do by hand: turn out onto a lightly floured pastry board. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Use only enough extra flour as necessary. To do by mixer: change to the dough hook and knead for a few minutes, adding extra flour if it seems very sticky.
Place in a greased bowl and turn dough to coat. Cover with a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours. Punch down. (Conventional wisdom would say, "gently deflate it," but I liked punching it when I was a kid). Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes, then punch it down again.
If you're making raisin or chocolate chip challah, here's where I knead it in. Flatten the dough gently, sprinkle on some raisins or chips, and knead them in gently. You can use the envelope method (fold in thirds with the goodies tucked inside, then repeat a few more times). I have noticed that it works better if the raisins are well-incorporated because otherwise the ones on the edge burn. You may be able to add these earlier in the process (before it proofs), but I don't really know.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Turn the bread out onto a lightly floured board and knead for a few seconds. Divide the dough in half to make two challahs, then divide each blob of dough in thirds to braid. Roll out the dough (I like longer, thinner rolls, but it just depends on how long versus how tall/wide you want your challah to be). Braid the strands. This recipe will make two regular loaves or a very nice-sized, two-tiered round challah. Place the loaves on a greased (or silpat- or parchment-lined) cookie sheet. Let it rise, covered, for an hour. Brush with reserved egg; sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, chopped onion, and/or salt, if desired. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Great with butter and honey, as my family will attest!
4-strand braiding tutorial: Here's a how-to video, but it's actually really easy. She has an interesting concept about making the strands fat in the middle and narrow at the ends. I can see tapering the ends a tiny bit, but I like them to be fairly even. Again, just depends what shape you want your challah.
Cut the dough in four even pieces and roll them out to about the same length. Pinch them together at the top. The difference is that you're always going to start with the far left piece, rather than braiding left-right-left-right.
Take the far left piece and cross over the second strand, under the third strand, and over the fourth strand. Then go back to the far left again and repeat: over the second strand, under the third strand, and over the fourth strand. Keep going until you get to the end, then pinch the ends together and tuck them under.
More pictures from the final rise: