Apricot Challah #TwelveLoaves

This bread makes me happy. And I like being happy. Especially now, when it isn't even summer yet and I'm already in full-bore crabby pants mode because of the heat. But this bread is the antidote for everything. Light, bright, and tangy-sweet—all things that make you…happy. 

Separately, apricots and challah have always been two of my (many) favorite foods. Apricots to me are the epitome of a summer fruit and I used to eat so many of them—carefully splitting them down the middle and twisting them apart—that it tipped me into belly-ache territory. There is a such a thing as TOO much fresh fruit… But they've always been just a little too delicate to withstand the produce squeezing abilities of your typical grocery shopper, so if you're not RIGHT THERE as they're being put out for sale, you're likely to end up with some pretty manhandled looking 'cots to choose from. Blech. Thankfully, dried apricots are as good as fresh, in my humble opinion—maybe even better, because the flavor is intensified—and they're available year round.

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Challah, too, has always been a fave, especially to bake, because not only does your hard work have a tasty payoff in the end but also because you get to play with your food. Wheee! This slightly sweet, eggy, traditional Jewish Sabbath and holiday bread is usually braided—and with variations that range from a simple 3-strander to a mind-boggling 12 (and maybe more, if you're really into brain-teaser baking), you can braid yourself into some pretty impressive knots trying to work it out. I've got a couple of bread books devoted strictly to challah and its many variations, but the one I used here, from Nick Malgieri's Bread, is definitely my go-to and my starting point for experimentation. There's just something about this version—taste, texture, the fact that it gives you two MONSTER double braided loaves—that makes it a standout.

I first tried making an apricot stuffed challah last year, inspired by Deb at Smitten Kitchen and her spectacular fig, olive oil and sea salt challah. Hey, if it worked with fig paste, why not apricot butter? Well…not quite. Somehow, apricot butter just didn't have the same, um, sticking power as the fig paste when it came to holding the dough together as you rolled out the strands following Deb's method. I had apricot butter squishing out in all directions. I was COVERED in apricot butter. In the end, I bagged the braid, gathered up everything into a big knotty mess, threw it in the oven and hoped for the best. Well… The result may have been the ugly duckling looks-wise but the taste? Definitely a swan. People were still asking me for it months later, as I toiled feverishly trying to figure out a way to fill the strands with apricot butter without creating a mess worthy of a 5 year old. 

And here we have it. Now I will admit that putting these breads together is a bit fiddly, what with the rolling, piping, pinching and braiding. And you know all those math skills you whined about having to learn in middle school because you figured you'd never need 'em? (Fractions!) Well, you'll need 'em here. But it's all so worth. The slightly sweet dough is studded with bits of dried apricot, tart apricot butter is swirled throughout, and it's topped with a sweetened egg wash and sprinkled with a bit of pearl sugar. It's terrific eaten plain, it makes a killer French toast and I'm thinking of giving a bread pudding a try too. Yup, it's a happy, happy bread and perfect for summer. You can't eat it and not smile. Just try. Go on. I dare you. The apricot challah is gonna get you.

Many thanks to #TwelveLoaves for this month's theme—sweet breads. Not sweetbreads. Never sweetbreads. Sweet breads are…sweet breads, as in breads. That are sweet. Sweetbreads, not so much. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who snarfed down a sweetbread only to find out that it wasn't what I thought. Shudder. That space in between sweet and breads? It's a biggie.

apricot challah

Ingredients

Sponge

  • 112g warm water (100°F)
  • 14g active dry or instant yeast
  • 100g unbleached bread flour

Dough

  • 225g water, room temperature (about 75°F)
  • 100g mild-flavored vegetable oil
  • 65g light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk (reserve white)
  • All of the sponge
  • 800g unbleached bread flour
  • 18g fine sea salt
  • 112g dried apricots, diced
  • apricot butter (recipe below)

Egg Wash

  • Reserved egg white
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp water
  • Pearl sugar (optional)

Directions

  1. To make the sponge, combine the water, yeast and flour in the bowl of a stand mixer and stir with a spatula or dough whisk until no dry flour remains. Cover and set aside for about 30 minutes, until the sponge has doubled in size.
  2. Once the sponge has doubled, add in the water, oil, sugar, eggs and egg yolk to the sponge and mix together with a spatula or dough whisk until combined.
  3. Mix in one half of the flour, then add the remaining flour a little at a time, stirring to make sure all the flour is absorbed.
  4. Place the bowl on the mixer, and mix with the dough hook for about 2 minutes at low speed. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.
  5. With the mixer on medium low, sprinkle in the salt and knead for 5-8 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Toward the end of the kneading time, add in the diced apricots, making sure to incorporate them evenly throughout the dough.
  6. Turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover and set aside until doubled, about 1 hour.
  7. Once the dough has risen, turn it onto a lightly floured board. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, cut off 1/3 of the dough, then cut that third into thirds again. Take the larger piece of dough (the remaining two-thirds) and cut that into thirds. Round off the pieces, cover with plastic wrap or a lint-free towel and set aside. Repeat with the second half of the dough. Let the dough rounds rest for about 10 minutes.
  8. Working with one loaf at a time, with the larger pieces, take each dough ball and roll into a thick rope with your hand, then with a rolling pin, flatten and stretch each rope until it's about 14–15" long and 2 1/2" wide.
  9. Fill a piping bag with the apricot butter and cut a 1/2" opening at the tip.
  10. Pipe a line of apricot butter down the length of the rope, starting and stopping about 1/2–3/4" from the ends. Pinch the dough around the apricot butter, making sure to close it securely, completely enclosing the apricot butter. If needed, gently roll the strands until they're 14–15" long, tapering the ends. Set aside the strand and repeat with the remaining two large dough balls.
  11. Place the three strands together, pinch at the top and braid together, pinching the strands at the bottom end. Set aside.
  12. Take the three smaller dough balls and roll each into a strand that's about 2" longer than braided loaf. Braid these three strands together, pinching the ends to seal. Brush a line of water down the top center of the loaf, then place the smaller braid on top, pinch the ends of both braids together, then tuck the ends underneath. Repeat with the second loaf. 
  13. Place the loaves on two parchment lined sheet pans, cover and set aside to rise for about 45 minutes or until the loaves are very puffy.
  14. While the loaves are rising, preheat the oven to 350°F.
  15. Just before baking, whisk together the reserved egg white, water and sugar, then brush each loaf with the wash and sprinkle with pearl sugar if desired. 
  16. Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown (cover with foil if they're browning to quickly) and switching positions if needed for even baking. Internal temperature should be around 190°F.
  17. Cool on the pans for a bit then transfer (with parchment) to a wire rack and cool completely.

Makes two large loaves

Adapted from Nick Malgieri's Bread

Apricot Butter

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried pitted apricots
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup orange juice or apricot nectar
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • Pinch of salt

Directions

  1. Place all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil for about a minutes, stirring frequently. 
  2. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so.
  3. Uncover and continue to simmer until most of the liquid is gone. Stir frequently to make sure the apricots don't burn.
  4. Remove from the heat and mash completely with a fork or potato masher or use an immersion blender to puree until smooth.
  5. Cool to room temperature before using. Store leftovers in the fridge. 

Notes

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of dried apricots that are readily available in mainstream grocery stores: Mediterranean and California. Without a doubt, I prefer California. In fact, as much as I love apricots, I don't really like the dried Mediterranean 'cot at all. The California versions are halved and generally quite tart. The Mediterranean variety are pitted whole and and much too sweet for my taste. Either one will do here but which you prefer really depends on your preference for sweet or tart.

About those math skills, fractions, people, fractions. Here it is again… You take the dough and divide it in half. Then you take each half and cut off a third. You take that third and divide IT into thirds. You take the remaining two-thirds and divide THAT into thirds. Got it? Eesh. Lather, rinse, repeat with the other half. I keep a calculator VERY handy for stuff like this, especially since I can't perform even the most basic math with single digit numbers. And I still mess it up using a calculator…

I've added the apricots to the dough towards the end and also at the same time as I added the salt. The result was the same so since I can be forgetful, I'd rather to it earlier rather than later. Just in case… Also, I've found that it can be helpful to do a bit of hand kneading at the end, just to make sure the apricots are evenly distributed. Sometimes hands are better than machines.

Using a piping bag to fill the strands was definitely the best way to go. I tried spreading the apricot butter with a small spatula but it was way too messy. The piping bag made very quick work of it—and neatly too.

Rather than placing both loaves on one large sheet pan or baking them on two different shelves in the oven (which gave me squashed loaves more than once because these babies are BIG), I used two jelly roll size pans. They fit side by side in the oven and it was much easier to manipulate the pans when I needed to switch the loaves around for even baking.

From an old recipe card I've had forever, from Nana maybe?

About #TwelveLoaves

#TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and runs smoothly with the help of Heather of girlichef, and the rest of our fabulous bakers. Our theme this month is A LITTLE SOMETHING SWEET. For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month's mouthwatering selection of #TwelveLoaves Mexican Breads! If you'd like to bake along with us this month, share your "A Little Something Sweet" Bread using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!