I think this is the prettiest bread I've ever baked. Honestly, though, I stood in my kitchen beaming like I'd sculpted some masterpiece. This is a challah filled with spinach and ricotta and pine nuts, shaped into a mock braid, and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. When I realized the method for braiding was the same I had used for my Braided Lemon Bread, I dove right in. Here's a how-to guide.
Before you assemble: Make sure your dough is on a parchment sheet or silicone mat. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible after to move to the baking pan while keeping it intact.
1. Cut the rectangle of dough so there are tabs on the top and bottom, and evenly spaced strips on either side. Spread the filling down the middle. Try to avoid snacking on too many of the toasted pine nuts and depleting them, which is easier said than done.
2. Fold down the top tab, then fold over one side strip, followed by the one on the opposite side, repeating all the way down. Easy! So you're either folding left-right-left-right, or right-left-right-left.
3. Before you finish folding all the strips, fold the bottom tab up, then braid the remaining strips over it. You might have noticed I don't have an even number of strips on each side -- don't repeat my mistake. If you do, no big deal. I just tucked the last extra strip under. Brush on an egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds, and you're ready to bake!
Joe loved the bread and devoured it. I froze the second loaf, because he vetoed my idea of giving it away. I have to confess, however, that I didn't love the bread as much as I thought I would. I felt like the filling could benefit from a stronger flavor like goat cheese or feta. Also, the dough was just too wet and I had to add nearly an extra cup of flour to make the dough come together, even though I weighed the ingredients so measurements should have been precise. And as nice as the bread was, I found myself thinking the flaky phyllo layers of spanakopita were superior. Still, all the while, I never got tired of marveling at how pretty my loaves were.
Spinach & Ricotta Challah
From The Los Angeles Times
Makes 2 loaves
For the filling:
Two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped or leaf spinach, defrosted
1½ tsp oregano
½ tsp thyme
½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves, from about 20 leaves
3 to 4 garlic cloves, pressed
⅓ cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry frying pan
2 cups ricotta cheese
¼ cup cornmeal or flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Drain the spinach well, squeezing out any excess liquid. You should have 2 cups of drained spinach, packed.
In a medium bowl, combine the spinach with the oregano, thyme, basil, garlic, pine nuts, ricotta, and cornmeal. Season with a scant ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as desired. Cover and refrigerate the filling until needed.
For the challah:
2 eggs, plus 1 beaten egg for brushing the loaves, divided
2 tbs sugar
¼ cup oil
Heaping teaspoon salt
¾ cup warm water
2 cups (8½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup (2¼ ounces) whole wheat or whole spelt flour
2 tsp active-dry yeast (I used 1¼ tsp instant yeast)
Sesame seeds, for garnish
In a small bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs, sugar, oil, salt, and water.
In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and wheat flours along with the yeast. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour in the wet ingredients. Mix together with a wooden spoon until the dough is uniform but still somewhat sticky.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and knead until it is smooth and soft, and when you poke the dough with your finger the hole springs back immediately, about 5 minutes.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Set aside until doubled, about 1 hour.
Heat the oven to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and remove the filling from the refrigerator.
Divide the dough in half, and place each half on a baking sheet (if the dough is sticky, flour it lightly). Stretch each half on the diagonal of the baking sheet into an oval measuring roughly 16½ inches long by 8 inches wide. Use your fingers to pat and stretch the dough, or a small rolling pin if desired.
Place half of the filling in a strip down the center of each oval, packing the filling tightly so the strip is no more than 2½ inches wide, and leaving a little space at the top and bottom of the dough to fold it over the filling.
Use a sharp knife, scissors or a pizza cutter to cut strips 1½ inches wide down the side of the dough on the diagonal, like a feather. Fold the top of the dough over the top of the filling, tucking the edges under.
Braid the challah: Overlap one strip from each side over the other side and the filling, pinching the tips of the strips down where they land. The filling will show through. Before you get to the bottom, fold the bottom of the dough up, and braid the remaining strips over it.
Brush the loaves with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until the challot are puffed and nicely brown, about 30 minutes. Serve the challot warm or at room temperature. The challot may be prepared up to 1 day in advance, refrigerated and reheated before serving.
Each of 20 slices: 167 calories; 7 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 31 mg cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 166 mg sodium.