2 Tbsp unsalted or salted butter (really soft or melted)
1 1/2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup tepid water (around skin temp, 80º-90ºF)
pinch of sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
2 1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs
6 -7 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur because it has a higher protein level, just don’t use soft wheat southern flour)
1 large egg (extra yolk optional)
1 Tbsp heavy cream or whole milk
Keep the 2 Tbsp of butter nearby for buttering the dough for the rises.
Whisk the yeast into the water. Add a pinch of sugar and let rest until the yeast has dissolved and is creamy, about 5 minutes.
Pt the milk and stick of butter in a saucepan on the stovetop or in a bowl in a microwave and heat until butter is melted. Add the honey and salt. If necessary, let the mixture cool so that it is no warmer than 110ºF.
If using a stand mixer: Get out your mixer bowl and add the creamy yeast to the milk mixture, along with the eggs, and stir to mix. Add about 5 cups of flour, beat on low speed for 3 minutes or until the dough starts to come together. Beating on medium-low, add as much additional flour as needed to make a soft dough that will clean the sides of the bowl. Knead on medium-low for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth, soft and elastic.
If you’re doing it by hand: Order is the same, but you probably want a large wide bowl for easy mixing with a wooden spoon. My favorite is a metal bowl for kimchi making I got from the local Asian market, it’s HUGE!
Take the dough out onto a clean, floured surface and work it by hand until it passes the windowpane test: you can stretch it thin and see lots of light through it and it won’t break (some small holes are ok).
Slather the mixing bowl with the reserved butter. Place the dough ball into the mixing bowl and coat the exterior of the ball with more butter. Cover with plastic wrap, or a damp towel, or a large tupperware lid
Let the dough rise at room temperature for 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until doubled in volume. When the dough is fully risen, deflate it, cover it as before and let rise until it doubles in bulk again, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Cut the dough in half and keep one piece of dough covered while you work with the other.
Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Four strand braiding is a little different from the typical three strand, but it makes a much nicer loaf of bread, and it’s not hard at all. Roll each piece into a rope about 16″ long; it should be slightly thicker in the center and slightly tapered at the ends. Align the ropes vertically, side by side and start braiding from the center down. Take the left-most strand and weave it over-under-over. Repeat.
When you’ve reached the end, turn the loaf around so that the braided half is on top; braid the lower half. Pinch the ends to seal and tuck the ends under the loaf. Transfer the loaf to a prepared baking sheet and gently plump it to get it back into shape; cover with a towel. Braid the second loaf, put it on a baking sheet and cover. Let the loaves rise at room temperature for 45 minutes or until soft, puffy and almost doubled.
Glaze and topping:
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 375ºF. Whisk the egg (and extra yolk if you so desire) and milk/cream together in a small bowl. Brush the tops and sides of the challahs with glaze. Reserve the leftover glaze for brushing the loaves during baking. if you’re topping the loaves, dust them with the seeds; sprinkle coarse salt over the loaves, topped or not.
Bake for 20 minutes. The loaves will expand and expose some of the inner dough. Brush the newly exposed dough with the reserved glaze and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the loaves are golden and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. If they start to brown too quickly, cover them with a piece of foil. Let cool before slicing.