How to Make It
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water with the pinch of sugar and let stand until creamy and starting to bubble. In a medium saucepan, combine the sliced butter and the milk. Warm over low heat just until the butter melts. Stir in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar and the honey and salt. Pour the milk mixture into a large bowl and stir in the dissolved yeast and the 4 eggs.
Brush a large bowl with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the melted butter. Transfer the dough to the buttered bowl and brush the top with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of melted butter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough, then cover and let rise until doubled in bulk again, about 1 1/4 hours.
Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle the paper with cornmeal. On a lightly floured work surface, divide the dough in half. Cover one half with plastic wrap and divide the other half into 3 equal pieces. Using lightly floured hands, roll each piece into a 10-inch-long rope with tapered ends.
Arrange the 3 ropes side by side pointing toward you and just touching. Starting in the middle and working toward your body, braid the ropes together, bringing the outside ropes over the center one. Pinch the ends to seal and tuck them under. Turn the loaf around and repeat with the other half, this time braiding the outer ropes under the center one. Seal the ends, tuck them under and transfer the loaf to a prepared baking sheet; gently plump the loaf with your hands. Repeat with the remaining dough. Cover the loaves with kitchen towels and let rise for 35 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Brush the loaves with the egg glaze. Let stand uncovered for 10 minutes, then brush again with the glaze. Bake the loaves in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, switching the pans halfway through baking, for 35 to 45 minutes, or until they are golden, feel light when lifted and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Loosely cover the loaves with foil if they become too brown during baking. Transfer to a rack and let cool thoroughly before slicing.
The same rich challah dough can be baked into rectangular loaves, then sliced for extraordinary sandwich bread. Makes three 8-by-4-inch loaves. Follow the recipe for Braided Challah through Step 4. Generously butter three 8-by-4-inch loaf pans and sprinkle with cornmeal. Punch down the dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 3 equal pieces. Flatten 1 piece of dough gently with your hand and roll it out to a 10-by-8-inch rectangle. Starting from the short end, roll the dough into a snug log. Pinch the ends well to seal. Set the loaf, seam side down, in 1 of the prepared loaf pans. Repeat with the remaining dough. Cover and let rise for 35 minutes, then glaze the tops twice, as directed, and bake at 375° for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden. Turn the loaves out and let cool on a rack.
This challah is studded with plump golden and dark raisins and swirled with cinnamon sugar. Makes three 8-by-4-inch loaves. Follow the recipe for Braided Challah through Step 4, adding 1 cup each of golden and dark raisins to the milk and butter before warming in Step 1. Follow the Loaf Pan Challah shaping directions, omitting the cornmeal. Combine 3/4 cup of sugar with 1 1/2 tablespoons of cinnamon in a small bowl; before rolling up the dough, sprinkle each piece with 1/4 cup of the cinnamon-sugar. Let rise, then glaze twice, bake and cool as directed.
Makes 16 rolls. For Twisted Rolls: Follow the recipe for Braided Challah through step 3. Refrigerate the dough in the covered bowl until chilled. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and divide into 16 pieces. Divide 1 piece in half and roll each half into a 6-inch rope. Twist the ropes together, elongating them slightly. Put your thumb down on 1 end of the roll and twist the other end to tighten. Pinch and tuck the ends under the roll and transfer to the prepared baking sheets; shape the remaining rolls. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rise for 35 minutes. Glaze twice, as directed, and bake the rolls at 375° for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Let cool on a rack.
For Braided Rolls: Follow the recipe for Braided Challah through step 3. Refrigerate the dough in the covered bowl until chilled. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and divide into 16 pieces. Divide 1 piece in half and roll each half into a 6-inch rope. Braid the ropes, tuck the ends under the roll and transfer to the prepared baking sheet; shape the remaining rolls. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rise for 35 minutes. Glaze twice, as directed, and bake the rolls at 375° for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Let cool on a rack.