Every Friday when my son was growing up, I would bake challah for Shabbat. When I started working outside the home I would start the challah before I left for work and then I would take the bowl of dough with me so I could punch it down. One day, my supervisor came into my office and asked me rather pointedly if I had beer in my office! I showed her the dough and all was forgiven. Admittedly it is much easier to simply deal with this at home, but I want you to know that bread can be very forgiving and that working is no excuse for denying yourself and your family this incredible treat. And if you are a Sabbath observer, anyone walking into your home smelling the bread fresh from the oven will immediately get into a peaceful, happy mood.
This recipe took years to get the proportions the way I want them and I have since passed the recipe down to Frances who now makes challah for Matthew every week. At first she wondered what they would possibly do with all of the bread, but now she realizes what a silly question that was. Once you taste this, you will never wonder about left-overs. Instead you will wonder how soon before it is time to bake it again!
Bread-making is as much art as science. In a factory, all conditions are controlled and so you can use exact measurements. At home, we don’t necessarily control for a humid day or a flour that may be be drier than the previous one or have more gluten. So you will have to learn to feel what the dough should be like. You may get lucky and hit it out of the park on the first try or may simply be just okay. It’s worth keeping at it. This is why I make my bread by hand. If I add raisins for my husband or leave them out for my son, the yeast will react somewhat differently. If you use a machine you miss all of that. I have also learned in over 25 years of baking challah that it needs to rest. And you never leave the dough uncovered if you are not working with it. I allow my dough to rest after the initial additions of flour because I learned that I will need less flour that way and it keeps the dough from getting too heavy. We like a sweet, rich bread, but you don’t want it leaden. Sometimes I will finish the braid with poppy seeds or sliced almonds, but other times, just the egg wash is all that is needed. I have learned how to braid a six-braided loaf, but for the High Holidays, I make a braided crown. Versions of all of these can be found on YouTube and I strongly urge you to find a way of braiding that you find enjoyable. A simple three-strand loaf is fine too. Bread-making should be fun as well as incredibly satisfying. Yes, it takes some effort, but you will never taste a store-bought loaf this wonderful. And the effect on your family will be almost miraculous – children stop fighting, husbands and wives suddenly feel that maybe the week wasn’t quite so terrible and guests feel as if they have just walked into an island in time. Isn’t that what Shabbat is really all about?
I have also developed a vegan challah for my godson who is allergic to eggs. It is the best tasting vegan challah I have ever had, but if you are able to eat eggs, use this recipe. The vegan version is very good, but this is outstanding. Any leftovers will make perfect french toast or bread pudding – or simply eat it toasted with butter and cinnamon sugar or honey or jam. The vegan recipe follows. I am not baking it this week, so I do not have a photo, but aside from the glaze which is lighter and not quite so shiny as with the egg glaze, the look is the same.
Yield: 1 large braided loaf (can be doubled)
2.25 teaspoons active dried yeast
1/3 cup warm water ( Turn on the tap and allow the water to get hot. If your finger can touch it and it feels hot but still comfortable, then that is the right temperature.)
1 generous teaspoon of granulated sugar or honey
2 large eggs plus one additional egg for the glaze mixed with a teaspoon of milk, soy milk or cold water
1 rounded teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 cup canola or grapeseed oil
generous 1/8 cup honey (Any good quality honey will do. I happen to like Greek honey for this challah and buckwheat honey for my vegan challah.)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
About 3.5 cups of flour (bread flour is best, but you can use all-purpose, unbleached flour) Start with 3 cups of flour and then only add more – a little at a time – if the dough is very sticky. Room humidity, differences in flour brands and types can all affect how much you will actually use. Use the least amount that you need to produce a non-sticky, supple dough. Allowing the dough to rest in between steps allows the gluten to form and will result in a lighter dough that requires somewhat less flour.
- Heat your oven to the lowest temperature. For my oven that is 170 degrees F. Rinse a large bowl with hot water. There is no need to dry it. This is the bowl you will make the dough in.
- Place your yeast, the 1/3 cup of warm water and the teaspoon of sugar in the warmed bowl, mix everything through and allow the yeast to proof for about 10 minutes. If your yeast isn’t bubbly and you don’t smell that beery, yeasty smell then your yeast isn’t active and you might as well not waste your ingredients. If it is bubbly…
- Add the sugar, salt, oil, honey, eggs and 3 cups of flour to the yeast mixture and vigorously stir 100 strokes. This gets out all lumps of flour and also gives your arm a good workout! If you wish to add raisins, you can add 6-8 ounces of raisins to the dough at this point.
- Add up to 1/2 cup additional flour, a little at a time and stir well to incorporate. I use a dough scraper to get all of the dough off of the sides of the bowl and at some point it is easier to work with than my heavy wooden spoon. It may take a little practice to feel what is the right time to stop adding flour, but don’t get discouraged, this is totally worth learning to make.
- Then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel that has been rinsed in hot water and wrung out. Allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes. This prevents you from adding too much flour ultimately and keeps the bread from getting too heavy. Turn off the oven but leave the door closed.
- After 15 minutes, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter or board and knead the dough until it is smooth, supple and elastic. It should feel alive under your hands – not dead and heavy.
- Oil the work bowl with about 2 teaspoons of Canola or Grapeseed oil and roll the ball of dough in the oil. Flatten it slightly into a thick disk and cover it with plastic wrap or the tea towel rinsed in hot water and wrung out. Place the bowl in the warm oven with the door closed. Allow the dough to rise for 1.5 to 2.5 hours depending on your dough. The dough should be poufy and when you stick 2 fingers into it the holes remain in place. It should be doubled. If you are at work or need to run out, punch the down down, cover it again and allow it to rise again. This will make for a finer crumb and can be done one more time if necessary.
- When you are ready, punch the dough down (children LOVE this part!) and turn it out onto your counter or board. Knead it for a few minutes (about 3 to 4) and cut the dough into the number of strands you will braid. Cover the dough and allow it to rest for 15 minutes. This will relax the dough and keep the strands from springing back on you.
- Now follow the instructions for braiding the dough. There are many sites and choose one that works for you. This is one that shows you a variety of braiding techniques or this for the way I learned to braid six strands. I don’t roll out my strands the way she does, but simply form them between my hands as if I were using play-doh. Try not to stretch the strands too much. Use gravity to help you get them the length you want. Place the braided dough on a baking sheet covered with parchment or a Silpat. Spray with a cooking spray like Pam or gently paint with Canola oil. Cover with waxed paper parchment and place in a warm spot to rise for about 45 minutes.
- While the dough is rising, heat your oven to 350 degrees F. When the dough has doubled, “paint” the braids with a mixture of egg and water or milk. If you wish to add poppy seeds or almonds or sesame seeds, sprinkle them over the egg wash and then dab with more egg wash. This is your “glue” and will prevent the seeds from falling right off.
- Bake for 25 minutes and then turn the dough and bake until a lovely dark brown and you can smell the bread. Tap it with your knuckles or a wooden spoon. If it makes a hollow sound, the bread is done. Gently move the bread to a cooling rack and allow it to cool before cutting. The bread will keep well (assuming you have leftovers) wrapped well in a large plastic bag or in foil. The bread can also be frozen, defrosted and warmed in a 325 degree F oven for about 10 minutes.
Note: This video shows you how to make a beautiful braided crown of challah. Some people make the dough the night before and allow it to slowly rise in the fridge to bake it the next day. I never have room in my fridge to do this, but don’t be afraid to try it. The point is that baking bread can fit into your lifestyle – it doesn’t have to rule it. Have fun.