If you're looking for a more traditional challah recipe than the pumpkin variation I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I highly recommend this sweet challah with gorgeous flecks of vanilla bean throughout the dough. It's much simpler and can be eaten with both savory or sweet meals. I think my favorite was a simple sandwich of salty smoked turkey ham, unsalted butter, and this bread. The salty sweet combination with the subtle undertones of vanilla is lovely.
Vanilla Bean Challah
Makes one large braided loaf
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar or agave syrup + 1 teaspoon sugar for the yeast proofing
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for greasing the rising bowl
2 large eggs + 1 large egg for the egg wash
1 teaspoon salt
1 whole vanilla bean
4 to 4.5 cups all purpose flour
In a large bowl, proof your yeast by whisking with 1 teaspoon of sugar in 1 cup of lukewarm water. Set aside and let sit until the yeast starts to foam.
Once it has foamed, pour into the base of an electric mixer and used the whisk attachment to mix in the olive oil, the two eggs (one at a time), sugar, and salt.
Split the vanilla bean and scrape all the seed into the mixer.
Switch to the dough hook and slowly add the flour, one cup at a time until it comes together and pulls away from the sides. Allow to knead in the mixer until smooth. (About 5 minutes.) If the dough seems too wet, add a little more flour, ¼ cup at a time.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll into a ball. Grease a large bowl well with olive oil and place the dough ball in. Turn once to cover the top and cover with plastic wrap.
Place in a warm place to rise for an hour or until doubled in size. (I use my turned-off oven as the heat from the pilot light is perfect temperature.) Use your fingers to gently poke the air out of the dough, roll back into a ball, grease, cover and let rise again for another 30-45 minutes.
Once the dough has finished the second rise, roll out onto a floured surface and gently knead into a smooth ball. Cut into six equal size balls and roll each one into a tapered snake shape, about 10 inches long each. Arrange the six rolls next to each other in a row and pinch the ends together. To braid, start from the right and go over two, under one, and over two. Tuck in closer and repeat again with the right-most piece of dough repeating until the entire loaf is braided. Set on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Beat the last egg and use a pasty brush to lightly brush over the loaf. Let rise for another hour.
When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 375 degrees (if you are rising the dough in the oven please be sure to remove it first).
Once the oven is ready, brush the loaf again with egg wash and place in the oven to bake for 30-40 minutes or until the top is glossy and golden brown.
Cool on a rack and serve.
To store leftover bread, wrap well with plastic wrap and keep in a cool dry place but outside of the fridge.