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Challah

Two nights ago I brought a couple of homemade loaves of challah to some friends’ house for Shabbat dinner, which was also the last night of Chanukah. Their mother, a fairly well-known kosher caterer, was there and my jaw dropped when she said she’d never learned how to make this classic bread. Challah looks beautiful once it’s baked even if you’re not a champion braider (I’m definitely not), but it’s not such a big deal.

Challah was the first bread I ever made. I was nearly eleven years old the summer Nixon resigned and a camp counselor asked me to help braid loaves from a huge bowl of dough in the kitchen one Friday afternoon. Later, I made all the challot for my bat mitzvah, baking and freezing them week after week. During my last two years at university, I made challah most Friday afternoons  and whenever I was baking I suddenly got proposals from other students along the lines of “Would you please be my mom?” (gee, thanks) Then I graduated, and I just stopped. I had no oven in Israel (a “WonderPot” doesn’t count), and when I came back I had a lab job with long hours. But every once in a while, for the High Holidays and at odd Fridays throughout the year, I still put my hand to the dough and lately it’s been coming out really well.

There are only a couple of smallish tricks to working with the egg-based dough. As long as you have the time to rise and bake the bread within a day or so of making the dough, the actual work time for a pair of two-foot loaves–kneading, braiding and glazing them with egg–is about half an hour altogether. Everything else is letting it sit and rise, or sit and bake. BUT you should figure about 3 hours for the first rise at room temperature (or overnight in the fridge if that’s handier, but I haven’t tried it personally for challah), and after the braiding, which takes maybe 20 minutes for 2 loaves, about another hour to rise covered and then a little less than an hour for baking.

This dough is not overtly sweet, not salty, and not too heavy on either eggs or oil. I find that the bread is lighter, more feathery, and less like a dried-out dish sponge the next day if you don’t exaggerate the rich stuff and just use water rather than more eggs or oil to make up the difference. So this is a lighter, more home-style challah than the kind you get at the bakery or in your grocery store, and less day-glo yellow too–they use turmeric, the cheats. Also much less expensive–I think the total cost is something like $2 for a pair of loaves, and the most expensive ingredient gram-for-gram is the yeast.

Kneading has to be fairly thorough to get that long, feathery texture when you pull the finished bread apart, but as far as I can see it’s not so much more kneading than for regular bread dough (aside from “no-knead” types). You can do it with a dough hook in a stand mixer, running for about 7-10 minutes, or in a food processor for a much faster and more efficient knead (ready in a minute or two), if you’re willing to clean all the parts afterward. Me, I still knead by hand much of the time because it’s really not that much work–about 5 to 10 minutes from the time you start mixing the ingredients. Somehow working the dough in a large bowl with a sandwich baggie over my hand is pretty efficient. Plus then I can make sure the dough is supple and stretchy rather than sticky-wet or stiff, and I don’t have to wash egg dough off my hands or multiple mixer parts–just let it rise covered in the mixing bowl until it’s ready to braid. I don’t even bother punching the dough down for another rise unless I desperately need to buy more time.

Baking times here are also a little less than you might expect because challah usually goes stale very quickly. For years I assumed the standard 1-hour-at-350-degrees baking instructions were right and I was wrong, but a couple of years ago I decided not to bake the challot all the way until you could knock against the hard undersides and hear a hollow sound. Instead, I’d check in the oven that they were risen and nicely browned and smelling good, and I’d take them out to test by pulling very carefully on a bit of the underside crust to check that they were actually cooked through. Sometimes the time is as little as 40 minutes, depending on how big the loaves are.

Challah (makes 2 18″ loaves)

  • 6-7 c. bread flour
  • 2-3 T. sugar (enough to fit in the cupped palm of your hand)
  • 2-3 T. olive oil (same, but don’t actually put it in your hand…)
  • 1/2 t. salt (note: some recipes call for a lot more–don’t do it, it inhibits the yeast)
  • 1 packet active dry yeast (I prefer Fleishmann’s extra-active yeast with the ascorbic acid added)
  • 3 large eggs for the dough plus 1 egg for glazing right before baking
  • just enough water to bring the dough up to the right texture, maybe 1-2 c. total

1. Put about 6 cups of flour with the yeast, sugar and salt in a large salad or mixing bowl. Put a sandwich baggie over your mixing hand and mix them together a few seconds. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the oil. If you keep kosher or are making the bread for someone kosher, crack the eggs individually into a cup to check that they have no blood spots (toss out any that do) before pouring each one into the mixing bowl.

2. Start stirring the wet ingredients into the flour with your mixing hand. When you have the start of a ball of dough in the center of the bowl, there will still be some flour around the sides. Don’t try to incorporate all the flour into the dough at once, it’ll be too stiff. With your clean hand drizzle  about half a cup of water into the side of the bowl to moisten the leftover flour and knead that in. Add another half cup or so, a little at a time as needed, and keep working the dough until everything’s mixed in and you can pick up the whole ball of dough. You want the dough to be soft and elastic, not heavy and hard to squeeze but not so soft it sticks horribly to the bottom of the bowl. If it’s too soft, sprinkle on some flour; if too stiff, sprinkle on a very little bit of water and work it in.

3. Start kneading in earnest for about five minutes. By that time you should be able to pull up the entire ball of dough, shake it to stretch into an oblong and slap it back into the bowl. Form it into a ball, drizzle on a little olive oil to coat it, and set it in the bowl. Cover the bowl loosely with saran wrap (and throw out the baggie).

4. Let the dough rise 2-3 hours on the counter. It should be a bit more than double in size. DON’T PUNCH IT DOWN unless you need another couple of hours before you braid and the bowl is overflowing. If you need another day before you’re ready, punch it down just enough not to touch the top of the bowl, cover it again and store it overnight in the fridge.

5. When you’re ready to form loaves, lay out a couple of lengths of tin foil (you may want double layers for strength) and grease them with olive oil. Sprinkle some flour on the foil. Remove the saran wrap carefully from the bowl–some of the dough may have stuck to it–and sprinkle a little flour on the surface of the dough. Cut the dough into six or eight even portions (for 2 3-strand or 4-strand loaves) a little bigger than an orange each. Dip each one in the flour on the foil to keep them from sticking. Without deflating them too much, roll and stretch them into ropes about 18″ to 24″ long and lay them side by side on the foil. Braid each loaf as you prefer and lay them side by side with at least 3 inches of space in between.

If you’re making them for a kosher home, pinch off an olive-sized piece of dough from the end of one of them and wrap it in a bit of foil to bake alongside the loaves and then discard–it’s a ceremonial symbol reminding us of the ancient sacrifices of flour mixed with oil and of the “12 loaves of show bread.”

Cover the loaves lightly with saran wrap and let them rise again for about an hour, preferably on a middle rack in your unheated oven.

6. When the loaves have risen considerably–they should look about double the size they were when you braided them–it’s time to glaze and bake them. Carefully and slowly peel the saran wrap off the loaves, which may be sticking a bit, so that you don’t deflate them. Mix the remaining egg with a few spoonfuls of water in a cup, and with either a spoon or your hand in another baggie, paint the egg glaze onto the tops and sides of the loaves as gently as you can–just skim the surface with your hand, don’t press on the dough.

If a lot of egg runs over the sides and pools at the bottom, you may want to wipe it off the foil so it doesn’t scorch in the oven (the smell is awful, though it shouldn’t affect the loaves themselves).

If you have sesame or poppy seeds, taste them before sprinkling onto the loaves to check that they haven’t gone rancid–they can sometimes look and smell ok but end up tasting funky and ruining your loaves (learn from my hard luck–best thing to do if you buy seeds in bulk is wrap them tight and store them in the freezer, not the cabinet.)

7. Bake on a middle rack in a 350 degree F oven until the loaves are risen even further, browned fairly nicely (they may not brown as deeply as in the photos of your favorite cookbook), and starting to smell good. Pull them out after about 45 minutes and check for doneness (watch out for steam). They should be springy on top rather than very firm or stiff, and may not knock hollow on the bottom, but pulling up a corner of the under crust near the middle of the loaf will show whether they’re cooked through or not (put the undercrust back in place…)

8. Let them cool uncovered and then wrap them in their foil as needed. Long bread bags work better for the long haul, but you don’t want to wrap them warm or they’ll put out too much moisture in the bag. Because these loaves don’t have a lot of salt, if you’re not going to eat them within a day it’s best to wrap them tightly and refrigerate for a few days, or wrap and freeze them to prevent them from going stale or moldy.

9. To eat–you can slice them, but in my family’s tradition, on Shabbat after the blessings everyone uses their hands, not a knife, dips the sections lightly in salt (or honey, if it’s the High Holidays) and shares them around the table. It’s more haymische that way.

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