Not your Bubbe's challah mind you, because it contains milk and butter, both verboten if you are kosher and plan to serve this challah with meat, which is often the case at holiday meals. Traditional challah is prepared with oil so that it will be Pareve and can be served with both dairy and meat meals.
It is the forbidden milk and butter which set this challah apart, imparting a richness unrivaled by the oil versions. If you are a secular Jew, as I, then this is the challah for you. It has been my holiday challah for years and continually receives rave reviews.
Be sure to follow the directions carefully and don't allow your dough to rise too much, otherwise you risk ending up with a challah pancake, as I did last year.
2 cups milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) sweet butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 packages active dry yeast
4 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon cold water
1. Bring milk, 6 tablespoons of butter, and the sugar to a boil together in a medium-size saucepan. Remove from heat, pour into a large mixing bowl, and let cool to lukewarm (105° to 115° F).
2. Stir yeast into the milk mixture and let stand for 10 minutes.
3. Beat 3 of the eggs well in a small bowl, and stir them and the salt into the milk-and-yeast mixture.
4. Stir in 5 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until you achieve a sticky dough. Flour a work surface lightly and turn the dough out onto it. Wash and dry the bowl.
5. Sprinkle additional flour over the dough and begin kneading, adding more flour as necessary, until you have smooth elastic dough.
6. Smear the reserved 2 tablespoons of butter around the inside of the bowl and add the ball of dough into the bowl, turning to coat it lightly with butter. Cover the bowl with a towel and set aside to let dough rise until tripled in bulk, 1 to 2 hours.
7. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut into halves. Cut each half into 3 pieces. Roll the pieces out into long "snakes" about 18 inches long. Braid three of the snakes together into a loaf and tuck the ends under. Repeat with remaining snakes.
8. Sprinkle a large baking sheet with the cornmeal, and transfer the loaves to the sheet. Leave room between the loaves for them to rise. Cover loaves with the towel and let rise until nearly doubled, about 1 hour.
9. Preheat oven to 350° F.
10. Beat the remaining egg and 1 tablespoon cold water together well in a small bowl. Brush this egg wash evenly over the loaves. Sprinkle immediately with poppy seeds to taste.
11. Set baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when their bottoms are thumped. Cool completely on racks before wrapping. Makes 2 large loaves.*
*These freeze very well!