Growing up in New York City eating out at diners was a pretty common experience. Our local diner was favorite for weekend breakfasts and though it was a Greek diner, there were always gorgeous loaves of challah bread piled by the cash register for sale. It was used in their signature french toast, cut thick and deep fried into crispy, custardy goodness. I loved to break apart the shiny brown loaves, feeling that rich crust giving way to the soft, slightly sweet interior. My aunt always grumbled about my unwillingness to slice the bread but some things must be eaten with your fingers.
Challah is a sweet bread, with a tender crumb that is yellow from an abundance of eggs and a gorgeous, shiny crust. As we researched Challah we discovered that the trick is to egg wash the bread twice before baking and we’re not ashamed to say that we’ve applied the technique to many other baked goods with great results. This bread makes truly wonderful French toast and our version with smoked schmaltz has a deep savory quality that we love.
Challah with Smoked Schmaltz
Makes 1 loaf and 9 rolls
6 cups/ 900 grams all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon/18 grams fine sea salt
1 tablespoon/12.5 grams sugar
½ teaspoon/1.5 grams instant yeast
150 grams/ 5.25 ounces Smoked Chicken Skin and Onion Cracklings (recipe below)
2 large eggs (100 grams)
6 large egg yolks (106 grams)
130 grams/ 4.6 ounces Smoked Chicken Fat (recipe below)
480 grams/ 2 cups Smoked Chicken Fond Water (recipe below)
45 grams/ 3 tablespoons crème fraiche
2 large egg yolks (36 grams)
Combine the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl. Whisk them together and then add the smoked chicken skin cracklings. Use your fingers to break the cracklings apart and evenly distribute them in the flour. Put the eggs, egg yolks, chicken fat and chicken fond water in a bowl and whisk together into a homogenous mixture. Use a wooden spoon to stir the liquid mixture into the flour. Stir continuously until the flour is absorbed and the dough has formed a soft ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise for 4 hours at room temperature.
Uncover the bowl and use a rubber bench scraper to gently loosen the dough from the bowl. Slide a bench scraper to loosen the dough from the sides of the bowl. Slide it under one edge and fold it downwards into the center and press down gently so the dough adheres to itself. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the folding process. Do this two more times. After the fourth fold, flip over the dough so the seams are on the bottom. Cover the bowl and let the dough continue to rise for another 10-12 hours. When the dough has risen, repeat the folding procedure and transfer the dough, seam side down, to a clean buttered bowl. Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 10 hours to allow the dough to firm up and become more manageable.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and turn it out onto a lightly floured countertop. Cut the dough in half. Divide the first half of dough into thirds and gently roll and stretch each piece into a 10-inch log. Transfer the logs to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Pinch one end of each log to the other two in the center of the sheet pan at one end. Braid the logs together and then pinch the ends of the log together and gently tuck them under the far end of the loaf. If possible do the same thing with the pinched ends at the top of the loaf. Cover the braided loaf loosely with plastic wrap and let it proof until it has almost doubled in size and looks puffy, about an hour depending on the temperature of your room. Portion the other half of dough into 100-gram rounds. Put one ball on a clean countertop or smooth cutting board and cup one hand over the top. Apply a gentle pressure to the dough as you rotate it I small counterclockwise circles. This will shape the dough into smooth balls with the skin stretched tightly over top. Transfer th roll to a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough, arranging them in a 3-by3 grid on the pan. Spray 9 four-inch flan rings with pan release and put them over the rolls, there will probably be space between the rolls and the ring but the bread will expand to fit during the proofing and baking. The rings will help keep the shape of the rolls uniform during baking. Cover the rolls with plastic wrap and let come to room temperature and rise until they have almost doubles and look puffy, about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/176°C
Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf and the rolls. Brush the egg wash first onto the loaf and then onto the rolls. Repeat the process so that all of the bread has been coated with egg wash 2 times. Put the rolls and the loaf in the oven, with the rolls on the bottom rack and the loaf on the middle rack and bake for 25 minutes. Rotate the loaf and rolls top and bottom and front to back in the oven and bake for 15 more minutes. Remove the rolls from the oven, they should be golden brown and round on top. Rotate the loaf back to the middle of the oven and front to back again and bake for 20 more minutes. Let the rolls cool for 5 minutes on the sheet pan then transfer them to a cooling rack. Let the rolls cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Remove the loaf from the oven and immediately transfer to a cooling rack. Let the loaf cool completely before cutting.
Makes enough for 1 batch of challah
Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat. Traditionally it was often seasoned with onions during the rendering process, as we do here, to give extra flavor to the fat and the cracklings of skin that are left over. Beyond using it for challah, schmaltz is wonderful for cooking any kind of chicken dish that calls for using fat and we use it as we would a container of bacon fat, cooking with it whenever we want to add some of its mellow flavor to a dish. It’s a little bit of extra work but it allows you take full advantage of any chicken you bring home. When we asked for chicken skins at our local Whole Foods we were happy to discover that they were willing to give them to us for free. So many people like to buy skinless chicken that they had plenty of skins to give away. We like to use as much of any ingredient as we possibly can and we’ve found that a little bit of schmaltz goes a long way to amplifying the chicken’s natural flavor in any dish.
1 large onion (350 grams) peeled
400 grams/14 ounces chicken skin (roughly the skin from 2 chickens)
1.5 grams/ ¼ teaspoon salt
510 grams water
Cut the onion in half vertically, remove the core from both pieces, and then cut it into vertical slices. Put the onion into a bowl with the chicken skin and stir to combine. Grind the onion and chicken skin through a meat grinder fitted with a ¼-inch die. Put the ground chicken skin mixture into a pan that fits in your smoker and cold smoke for 1 hour. Transfer the mixture to a medium sauté set over low heat. The chicken skin and onions will slowly render and caramelize. Stir the mixture occasionally making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan, stirring more often towards the end of the cooking time. After about an hour the chicken skin cracklings and onions will have turned a deep foxy brown in a pool of clear chicken fat. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, reserving the pan without cleaning it. Transfer the chicken skins and onions into a bowl and season with 1.5 grams salt and reserve them and the the chicken fat in separate containers.
Set the pan with the caramelized fond stuck to the bottom over medium heat and add 510 grams water. Use a silicone spatula to scrape the edges and bottom of the pot to remove all the caramelized bits. Transfer the liquid to a heatproof container and let it cool to room temperature before using.