fig and olive oil challah


I've had a few successful bouts with bread-making in the past. And quite a few more that were not so fortunate. Yeast-risen doughs are a temperamental sort, finicky and snobbish towards things you can't control like climate or moisture. My thought is, if you have a free Saturday to devote to bread-baking, you should give it a go. The only way to improve is to keep trying, am I right?

Armed with this positive attitude and an intensifying craving for challah, I turned to an adapted Smitten Kitchen version of this classic loaf. I'd say the only huge difference between hers and mine would be that I didn't use much sea salt, mainly because I didn't have it. I added some salt to the dough itself, but did without the flakey version when it came to topping off the loaf pre-baking. If you think that's disgraceful, by all means: salt your challah. Spoiler: it will come out amazing either way.

Okay, what you need (other than a good three hours or so of time) is as follows.

For the bread:

1 packet (7 grams) of active dry yeast
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon of honey
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for the rising bowl
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

1 cup figs, stemmed and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup orange juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper

And set aside a third egg for an egg wash over the loaf before baking.

Whisk your packet of yeast with 1 teaspoon of honey and 2/3 cup warm water and let stand for a few minutes until your yeast gets foamy. A mistake I've made before: don't mix your yeast with any liquid that could be considered hot. Even slightly more than warm. It will kill the yeast completely and your dough won't rise. The best thing to do is heat your water for about twenty-thirty seconds in a microwave and then let it sit on the counter for 3-5 minutes. That way it's just barely above room temperature, which is just what the yeast needs to activate properly.

While you're waiting for the yeast mixture to foam up (should take around 5 minutes), in the large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the rest of your honey, your olive oil and 2 eggs. Add the yeast mixture and continue whisking. Add your salt and flour (one cup at a time) and continue whisking until the dough starts to stick together. After the second or third cup of flour, switch to the dough hook attachment. Continue to add your flour until it's all incorporated. Once you've added all your flour, run the dough hook on a slow speed (2 or 3 should work) for about 8 minutes. After this, transfer to an olive oil coated bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to rise for one hour. (A good spot to do this is in the oven, which of course is off, but still warm enough to aid the rising dough.)

While you're waiting for the first rise, now's a good time to make your fig filling. In a small saucepan, combine your chopped figs, orange zest, orange juice, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer on medium heat and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the figs have softened and started to separate. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least an additional 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and pulse until it resembles a paste. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

After the hour, turn your dough out onto a well-floured counter. It's going to be pretty sticky, but that's a good thing. Flour the top well and divide in half. Roll the first half out into a haphazard rectangle (don't aim for perfection here). Spread half of your fig paste over the dough (quickly, because the moisture will make the dough harder to work with) and roll tightly. Carefully stretch the rolled dough until it's about doubled in length. Set aside and repeat this process with the second half of dough.

Now comes the part that seems tough, but trust me, you got this. Here are Deb's instructions (and feel free to refer to her version for accompanying pictures):
"Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move the leg to their right — i.e., jumping it. Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round."

If it doesn't look perfect, don't worry too much. Because it's going to taste great. And honestly, it probably looks good, too. Now, if you haven't done your weaving directly on a parchment-lined baking sheet (because I didn't), try to carefully transfer your loaf to a parchment-lined baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk the last egg until smooth. Brush your loaf carefully with the egg wash and set aside (back in the warm-but-off oven) to rise for one more hour.

Fifteen minutes before the final rise is ended, take your loaf out of the oven and preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Brush the loaf with your egg wash one more time (be super generous so the challah gets that pretty sheen) and bake for 35-40 minutes. It should start to bronze pretty quickly, but if you notice it starting to get too dark too quickly, cover with some foil to avoid burning.

Deb recommends using an instant-read thermometer (should be around 195 degrees in the center) to make sure the loaf is done, in case you aren't sure. Cool on a wire rack for just about as long as you can stand it, which for me was about a half hour. It was a pretty excruciating 30 minutes, let me tell you. If I managed to hang on to any of this, I would definitely like to make some French toast with this bread. Maybe with more figgy jam on top: yes.