The holiday season sure keeps us busy: I can’t believe December is already half over! Time sure flies, especially when you are with friends and family. I was able to spend a relaxing week at home for Thanksgiving and enjoyed some time with my parents and quite the holiday feast. My sister not only picked out an incredible 14-pound free-range turkey (which I dry brined with orange, fennel seed, and chile and then roasted), but she also baked some beautiful and moist challah for the table.
Back in New York, I was inspired last weekend to try out the bread for myself, and thanks to a squash I had sitting around, decided to play with the original recipe a little bit. Along with a cup of squash puree, I added in some cranberries, raisins, and gingerbread-type spices to turn the bread into a delicious snack. (We all need those every once in awhile, right?) This variation would be great for french toast, bread pudding, or stuffing, and it’s also wonderful on its own, a bit like the Italian holiday bread pannettone. And even though Turkey day is over, the festive color and spice would likely be welcome on any holiday table.
Spiced Squash Challah, adapted from Epicurious
Yield: Two loaves
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast (1 package)
3¾ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup warm water
¼ cup dried raisins
¼ cup dried cranberries
1 large egg, plus 1 egg for glazing
¼ cup vegetable oil
1½ teaspoons table salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 cup squash or pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Combine the yeast and 3/4 cup of flour in a large bowl. Whisk in the warm water until smooth. Let stand, uncovered, for 10 to 20 minutes, until it begins to puff up slightly. In the meantime, place the raisins and cranberries into a bowl and cover with warm water. When the dried fruit has plumped up, 5 to 10 minutes, drain and pat dry with a paper towel.
When the yeast mixture is puffy, whisk in the 1 egg, vegetable oil, salt, sugar, puree, and spices. Mix until well combined. Add in the remaining 3 cups of flour, and mix until a shaggy ball forms. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it until firm and smooth, around 10 minutes. During the last few seconds, add in the rehydrated fruit and knead until well combined.
Clean your bowl in warm water and place the dough ball into it. Cover bowl and let the dough ferment until it has doubled in size, around 2 hours. (The dough can also be refrigerated now and removed up to 24 hours later to ferment; chilled dough will take an additional 30 to 60 minutes to ferment.)
When the dough has risen, lightly flour or line a sheet tray. Divide the dough in half, and keep one half covered. Divide the remaining piece into thirds and gently roll the pieces into long, equal-sized strands. Move the strands onto the sheet tray and firmly push the ends together. Carefully braid the strands, laying one piece over the other and repeating, until you reach the end. Gently push these ends together and tuck under slightly. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let proof again until the braids have tripled in size, about 1½ hours.
Thirty minutes before baking, arrange the oven racks into the middle and lower positions. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
When the loaves have tripled in size, whisk the last egg with a little salt and brush the braids with it. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the braids are well browned. After the first 20 minutes, rotate the sheet tray. If the braids brown too quickly, cover loosely with a piece of tinfoil. When loaves are done, let cool on a baking rack and enjoy!