(from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, by Jayne Cohen, available in print and e-book formats)
Yield: 2 medium loaves
- 2 large yellow onions (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into coarse chunks
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled and quartered
- 1 cup onion-garlic liquid (reserved from recipe)
- 2 envelopes (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mild olive oil
- 2 large eggs
- Table salt
- 2 teaspoons cumin powder, preferably freshly toasted and ground
- 4 to 5 cups plus 1 tablespoon bread flour, plus additional for dusting
- the work surface, kneading, and shaping the dough
- Coarse salt
- Oil for greasing the bowl, plastic wrap, and baking sheet
- 1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water, for glaze
Have all ingredients, except glaze, at room temperature.
In a food processor, pulse the onions and garlic until finely chopped but not pureed. Drape a damp, thin kitchen towel or double thickness of cheesecloth over a strainer set in a bowl. Scrape the onion-garlic mixture onto the cloth, gather the ends of the cloth together, and twist and wring until you have squeezed as much liquid as possible into the bowl, reserving it. Set aside the onion-garlic mixture. Don’t bother to wash out the food processor.
Measure the reserved onion-garlic liquid, adding enough plain water if necessary so that you have 1 cup. Warm the liquid to 100 to 110 degrees F, and add it to the food processor. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid, add 1 teaspoon of sugar, and allow the mixture to dissolve and proof, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add 1/4 cup oil, the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the eggs, 2 teaspoons table salt, and the cumin. Pulse for a few moments to combine. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, pulsing briefly after each addition. After you’ve added 4 cups, process briefly until the dough forms a ball around the blade. (If the dough seems too moist, add additional flour in small increments through the feed tube until the sides of the processor bowl are clean but the dough still appears to be a little sticky.) Continue processing for 2 to 3 more minutes to knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl. Cover with greased plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm draft-free place until double in bulk, 2 to 3 hours. (You can begin the bread the day before you plan to bake it and let the dough rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator. Bring the dough back to room temperature before continuing.) To test whether the bread has fully risen, gently press it with a fingertip. If the dent remains, the dough is ready.
While the bread is rising, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the reserved chopped onion and garlic, salt lightly, and cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft, up to 40 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, and continue cooking, lifting and turning, until golden and caramelized and any pan liquid has been absorbed. If necessary, turn the heat up to high for a few moments and cook, stirring, just until the pan liquid disappears. Cool the mixture to room temperature.
Punch the dough down. Now, using your hands or a floured rolling pin, gently flatten the dough and shape it into a circle about 3/4-inch thick. In a small bowl, mix about three quarters of the caramelized onion mixture with 1 tablespoon flour, and spread it over the dough, leaving a 1-inch margin. Sprinkle lightly with the coarse salt. Fold in the edges and re-form the dough into a ball. Sprinkling with more flour as necessary, knead for 1 to 2 minutes to lightly incorporate the onions into the dough. Let the dough rise a second time until double in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch the dough down and divide it into six equal pieces. Using your palms, roll the pieces into identical ropes about 10 inches long. Braid the ropes into two loaves, using three ropes for each loaf. An easy way to do this evenly is to start the braid in the middle, braid to one end, then turn the loaf upside down and braid to the other end. Turn the ends under and press down to keep them joined together.
If you find the dough is difficult to work because the onions push through to the surface, you can shape it into two turbans instead: Divide the dough into two pieces. With your palms roll each piece into a long rope, thicker at one end. Holding the thicker end on the work surface with one hand, with the other hand spiral the rope around the thick end, forming a turban. Tuck the end of the rope under the edge to hold in place.
Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Apply the first coat of egg wash (reserve the rest), brushing it all over. Cover with greased plastic wrap and allow to rise for a third time until double in bulk, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Mix the remaining caramelized onions into the remaining egg wash. When the loaves have risen, brush the egg wash-onion mixture over the top. Just before placing in the oven, sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Bake for about 35 minutes on the middle rack, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a rack and let cool, or remove from the baking sheet and place directly on the oven rack to cool in the oven with the oven door left ajar.
Cook’s Note: For a subtly spicier flavor, season the caramelized onion liberally with freshly ground black pepper.
Make sure the cloth you use to strain the onions has been washed only in unscented detergent. I use inexpensive men’s cotton handkerchiefs--they’re great for this and similar kitchen chores.