3 tablespoons honey (I used amber summer honey)
1 cup warm water
pinch of saffron threads, crushed
1 package rapid-rise yeast
3 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 1/2-4 cups bread flour, divided
cornmeal (about a teaspoon)
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon water
1/4-1/2 teaspoon poppy seeds
Making the dough:
In the bowl of a standing mixer, stir honey and saffron into warm water and mix well until honey dissolves. Sprinkle yeast over water and let sit for 5 minutes, until dissolved (and foamy). Add butter, salt and egg and mix well with a whisk. Add 3 cups of flour and stir with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Knead with the dough hook attachment on medium speed for about 5 minutes, adding more flour as needed until the dough begins to flap against the side of the bowl. This will be a very soft dough, though smooth and elastic. (You can also knead by hand, adding flour as needed. If kneading by hand, knead for about 8 minutes.)
With floured hands, form dough into a ball and place in a large bowl that's been lightly sprayed with cooking oil. Cover and let rise in a warm place* until doubled in size -- about 40 minutes. Gently fold dough in on itself a few times and re-form into a ball. Cover and let rise another 40 minutes until doubled again. Again fold dough in on itself a few times and let sit for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375. (The third rising happens after you form the loaf--see below.)
*In the winter, when it's hard to find a warm, draft-free spot in our house, I place the rising bread dough in our oven, which has been slightly heated. I turn the oven on to the lowest temperature--170--and let it heat for a few minutes. I turn the oven off and place the covered bowl of dough in the center. Another trick is to bring 1/2 cup of water to boiling in a microwave oven. Place the covered bowl of dough in the microwave along with the hot water.
Forming the loaf:
Divide dough into three equal pieces. Form each into a rope about 18 inches long, with slightly tapered ends. Dust a parchment-lined cookie sheet with the cornmeal. Place the ropes on the parchment, overlapping each in the middle, then braid down each side. Tuck in the ends. (For great braiding instructions, check out this link to Pinch My Salt.)
Mix the egg yolk with the 1 teaspoon of water and lightly brush the whole loaf. Sprinkle with poppy seeds.
Bake in the 375 preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the loaf is a rich golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack. This bread is best eaten the day it's made. Makes about 12 1-inch slices.