“Just keep kneading”, she said.
“Gran, this is way too wet!” I’d groan back.
But she insisted on me kneading the sloppy pile of milk and flour on the workbench in front of me. “Knead it and beat it a little, Zopf likes it rough”, she’d joke.
My grandmother is a work of art herself, but if there’s two things she’s really good at it’s not listening to doctor’s orders and baking bread.
I have come a long way in my bread making over the last few years, with the help of two great people: Gran and Paul Hollywood, who, coincidentally, has the same first name as grandad.
As I was standing in her tiny kitchen, it was the Saturday night before the first Easter after grandad’s passing, I was in charge of making the traditional Zopf for brunch the next day.
Despite being both Swiss and Bavarian by heritage, imported German by marriage and Globetrotterish by choice, I had yet to become successful in baking with yeast.
And my first enlightenment came through my grandmother on said Saturday back in 2012.
She has always been a temperamental and intuitive baker, she would not use any scales but judge by the feel of the dough.
She’d start kneading, then go out to feed the calves. She’d come back and continue, only to remember the hens needed to be brought inside.
But this time she let me sweat and swear, punch the dough, complain about it sticking to my hands. In between her chores outside, possibly cleaning a cow or two, she’d come back and bark at my complaints in her sweetly-rough signature style.
Though, as usually, she turned out to be right. After 25 minutes of manual labor, I was left with a silky-smooth ball of dough.
This is where I learned that bread dough is initially wet and sticky.
My second lesson came from the blue-eyed bread master himself.
Much about the same topic of how long to knead, it provided me with a more foolproof test for gluten development.
Street slang has it named the windowpane test, you know the rough baker’s street slang from the GBBO tent.
So maybe rather Great British Countryside slang.
The theory behind it is that the gluten strands will develop enough for you to be able to pull a bit of dough into a square thin enough to almost see through.
And this, my friend, is the true secret behind fluffy Challah bread. Because that coveted soft fluff comes from nowhere else but nicely developed gluten strands.
Fine, the butter and fat from the milk might play their part in there, too.
When you make this Swiss-style challah bread, know that it is called Zopf because that’s what we call something braided.
You’ll need to melt the butter, and since I find it tedious and boring to wait for something to cool down enough for the yeast to survive, I recommend pouring the cold milk straight into it, together with a few tablespoons of sugar.
The butter will be hot enough to start dissolving the sugar, while the cold milk will bring the temperature down enough without hardening the butter again.
Please note that I’m using European butter, so if you can get your hands on a slightly fatter European-style stick of butter, all the better.
I bake bread in a complicated fashion. First, you’ll activate the yeast with a little of the liquid I just described. 5 minutes in a small bowl will do.
Secondly, you’ll make a quick and dirty levain. A well in the middle of the flour, no salt added yet (!), you’ll mix the activated yeast with a little more liquid and flour. 15 minutes of rest will give you a nice pre-rise. If you need step-by-step pictures on how to make bread dough, I have them here.
If you want to knead by hand, prepare yourself for half an hour of hard work. Otherwise you can throw the remaining liquid and salt into the bowl and knead on low in a stand mixer with the hook attachment.
You’ll do 8 minutes on low. That’s when you’ll notice the dough coming together. But don’t be fooled, the windowpane test will still fail. Allow the gluten to rest for a minute, then do 4 minutes on medium speed. Another minute of rest for a final 2-3 minutes on medium-high speed, which is when you should be able to successfully pull a small amount of dough into a tiny window.
The other crucial part of bread making is the rise, which I don’t feel I’ve fully mastered yet. I left this dough for nearly 2 hours, which seemed to be fine. If you under-proof your dough, you’ll notice it ripping apart on the sides during baking.
Braiding a basic two-strand Challah isn’t difficult or greatly artful, but I leave the more sophisticated stuff for events like Easter and Christmas.
One thing that I love to do is breaking my dough into 2.5oz balls and braid tiny two-strand Challas. I then bring the ends together and pinch them to form a small roll.
A second rise of around 15 minutes helps relax the strands once more before baking.
The egg wash is crucial for a nice color and shine. If you’re wondering why I’m not putting any eggs into the dough itself, it is because it will dry out much quicker after baking. If you know you’re eating right away and long for a warmer color, go ahead and add an egg yolk along with an extra tablespoon of flour.
It’s a rather quick bake, a large Challah made with 4 cups of flour is done in roughly 25-30 minutes, smaller rolls will be ready in 12-15 minutes.
Don’t take them out while they’re still too pale, or they’ll be doughy and dense in the middle. Never be afraid of color in cooking and baking – you’ll only achieve great flavor if you dare to let the right things brown.
Now I know this isn’t a cake or very sweet dessert for today’s installment of Sweet Saturday, but to me this is one of the best ways to sweeten your weekend – so I suggest you follow gran’s orders and get on with your kneading.
Soundtrack to your weekend baking:
The Fluffiest Challah Bread: Swiss Zopf
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- 1/2 stick butter
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 2 tablespoons fine caster sugar
- 1 packet dry active yeast
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 egg beaten
- poppy seeds for sprinkling (optional)
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the milk and sugar.
- Place the dried yeast into a small bowl and add three tablespoons of the milk mixture. Stir well, cover losely and let stand for 5 minutes. It should bubble up and become sponge-like in texture.
- Place the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Make a well in the middle and pour in the activated yeast. Pour in about 1/3 of the milk mixture and stir in just enough of the flour to form a wet dough. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Again, it should rise into a puffed up sponge.
- Add the salt and remaining milk mixture. Knead in your stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment on low speed for 8 minutes. Rest for 1 minute. Knead on medium speed for 4 minutes. Rest for another minute. If the dough still rips apart easily, knead on medium-high speed for 2 minutes, otherwise medium will do.
- Check with the windowpane test if your gluten has developed enough. If not, keep kneading. If it has, shape the dough into a ball, place back into the bowl and cover with a clean kitchen towel.
- Let the dough rise until doubled in volume, at least one hour but better two (depending on your altitude, higher altitude makes for a quicker rise).
- Once your dough has risen, remove it onto your work surface. For one large braid, divide it into two equal pieces. Roll them into long-ish strands and braid. Otherwise, weigh out 2 1/2 oz (72g) portions of the dough and make mini two-strand challas. Pinch their ends together to form rolls.
- Place your challah on a lined baking sheet. Cover with the towel and let rise and relax for another 15 minutes. In the meantime, heat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
- Once your bread is ready, brush it well with the beaten egg. You can sprinkle it with poppy seeds (or sesame) if you like.
- Bake the large challah bread for 25-30 minutes, small ones for 12-15. They will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom and have a nice golden brown crust.
- Allow to cool on a rack. Best eaten warm with butter and honey!