Start to finish: 4 hours (30 minutes active). Makes 2 loaves
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water, about 110 F
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (-ounce package)
1/4 cup honey
3 large whole eggs, divided
3 large egg yolks
(1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional)
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for bowl
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 tablespoon whole milk
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugar, water and yeast. Mix until the yeast is dissolved. Let sit until foam develops on the surface of the water, about 5 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, 2 of the whole eggs, all 3 egg yolks, and the oil. Add to the yeast mixture.
Add the salt and flour, then use the mixer's dough hook attachment to mix on low until combined, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and continue mixing until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 6 minutes.
Lightly coat a large bowl with oil, then transfer the dough into it, turning the dough once to completely coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume, about 1 hour.
Transfer the dough to a dry work surface and punch down lightly to remove air that has gathered inside the dough.
Reshape the dough into a ball and return to the oiled bowl, again turning the dough to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with the towel and set in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume, about 1 hour.
Lightly coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray or line it with parchment paper.
Divide the dough in 2. The dough can be shaped into a standard loaf and baked as is. It also can be braided into a more traditional challah design. The number of braids determines the complexity. Three is a good number for beginners.
To do this, divide each piece of dough into three equal parts. Using your hands, roll each portion of dough into strands about 12 inches long and about 1 inch wide. You should have a total of 6 strands.
Gather together 3 strands and pinch them together at one end. Arrange the strands on the counter such that the pinched end is away from you and the strands fan out toward you.
Take the rightmost strand and bring it over the center one, dropping it between the center and left strands. Take the leftmost strand and bring it over the center, dropping it between the center and right strands. Continue this action of crossing the strands over one another until the strands have been fully braided. Be sure to pause occasionally to adjust the already braided portions so that they lay evenly and in a consistent pattern.
At the end of the braid, pinch the ends of the strands together and tuck them under the loaf. To make the second loaf, repeat this process with the remaining 3 strands of dough. Carefully transfer the braided loaves to the prepared baking sheet.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining egg and the milk. Use a pastry brush to coat the surface of each loaf with the egg mixture. Reserve excess egg mixture in the refrigerator.
Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap, then place them in a warm spot to rise until the loaves have doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Heat the oven to 350 F.Lightly brush the loaves with the remaining egg mixture. Bake until the loaves have risen and are a deep golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer the loaves to a wire rack to cool completely.