Sunday, October 9, 2011

How To Make That Challah

As I mentioned last week, I made special challah for Rosh Hashanah this year. Like most "special" recipes of mine, this means I took my regular recipe, added two reasonably fool-proof ingredients, and called it something totally new.

So I thought I ought to start out this recipe post by giving you my regular challah recipe. I make this bread every week. For some reason, the scent of fresh bread that fills the entire apartment when I'm making challah has come to be my trigger for Shabbat. On weeks when I make challah, I feel better all week long. On weeks when I don't make challah, I feel stressed and tense.

This probably has something to do with the fact that if I have time on a Friday to spend 6 hours making bread, it means I'm not crazy behind and overscheduled. And if I don't have time... well, being stressed and tense all week was probably going to happen at that point even if I did miraculously come up with a few braided rolls.

In any case, here's how to make my challah.

1 small bowl
2 large bowls
1 spoon
measuring cups and spoons
wax paper
cling wrap
baking sheet
parchment paper
wire cooling rack

2 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour, plus extra to flour the counter and your hands
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp water
1 envelope yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp oil
3 eggs
poppy or sesame seeds, if desired

Now, before we get into how to actually make challah, I should mention that in most respects this is a very forgiving recipe. If you don't have enough time for all the rising, or you happen to lose patience with the kneading process after two minutes and skip out on the other five to eight, or something like that, you'll probably still be fine.

On the other hand, I have found that the recipe does NOT react well to adjustments to the ingredients. I've tried using whole wheat flour, sugar substitutes, egg beaters, etc to make it a bit healthier, but every time I do something like that, I end up with really bad bread. I've also tried halving it, because Lee and I don't really need that much bread to go with Shabbat dinner when it's just the two of us, but this doesn't go well either.

So you just sort of have to suck it up and deal with real sugar and eggs and a relatively huge amount of dough. One tip I will share is this: if you don't need all the dough at one time, it does freeze well. More details on this in the instructions.

So, on to the bread making fun and excitement.

Step 1: Proof the yeast. (Now I'm going to explain this process because the first time I saw that instruction, I had to do a lot of Googling because I had no idea what it meant. I'm assuming you don't know what you're doing here either.) Put the 1/4 cup of warm water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sugar on top of the yeast. Try to sprinkle lightly so the sugar doesn't sink the yeast. If it happens, no big deal. I end up sinking mine all the time. But I'm told it should be floating on top of the water for this process. Let it sit for about 10 minutes. The mixture should be foamy at that point. (If it's not foamy, as has happened to me once or twice, I'm not really sure if you're supposed to do anything to it or not. I usually just ignore it and move on and have yet to see any consequence. Subsequently, I'm not actually sure you need to really do any of the things in this step or not, but I've always done it this way so I'm passing it on to you now. In any case, don't worry if it doesn't turn foamy. As I mentioned above, this recipe is very forgiving.)

Step 2: Meanwhile, oil one of the large bowls and set it aside. This is going to be the bowl where the bread rises, but you don't want to mix the dough in it because it'll get all sticky and floury. Also, you'll want to prepare your work surface by covering it with a sheet of wax paper and taping it down. Seriously, this is sticky dough and you will be cleaning it up forever if you do this on a bare counter top. If you put the wax paper down, you just have to toss that in the trash when you're done instead. WAY EASIER. Scoop out about 1/2 cup of flour and put it in a little pile off to one side of the wax paper so you have it available when you need it for flouring the paper and/or your hands. This will save you having to reach into the bag of flour with hands covered in dough or something when you realize you need it later.

Step 3: Measure flour out into the other large bowl and then use the spoon to push it all to the sides, forming a deep well in the center. Add remaining sugar, remaining water, 2 eggs, oil, and salt to the well. By now, your yeast proofing from step 1 should be done. Dump the whole yeast mixture into the well. Stir everything together.

Step 4: Eventually, you'll have to dump it out onto the wax paper because it's too sticky to keep stirring with the spoon. This is where that pile of flour you have off to the side comes in handy. Flour your hands liberally. Sprinkle a bunch of it over the ball of dough and all over the wax paper. Flour is your friend in this recipe. Knead everything together and continue kneading for about 7-10 minutes, adding more flour as needed to keep it from sticking to everything, until the dough is good and elasticy.

Step 5: THIS PART IS ONLY NECESSARY IF YOU'RE NOT USING THE ENTIRE BATCH OF DOUGH AT THIS TIME. Divide the dough into as many pieces as you want. I typically divide it into four parts, because 1/4 of this recipe is more than enough bread for Lee and I to consume at one meal. That way I only have to do the mixing part of the process once every four weeks. If you have a lot of people to feed, you might need it all. If you are cooking for just yourself, you might need even less. Wrap each piece you're not using today tightly in a sheet of cling wrap so that none of the dough is exposed. Then put the wrapped dough into a freezer bag and stick it in the freezer. In my experience, it's good in the freezer for a couple of months, though I don't usually have mine in there for more than a few weeks.

Step 6: Put today's dough in the oiled bowl (either the hunk of dough you just mixed and didn't freeze or a ball of dough fresh from the freezer and unwrapped -- this first rising will serve as a thawing period) and cover lightly with a sheet of cling wrap. If you're using a frozen ball of dough, that cling wrap you just took off the dough works nicely here. Set the bowl aside in a relatively dark, dry area. In other words, don't stick it in the fridge or on a windowsill or something. An unused corner of the kitchen counter will do fine. Let the dough rise for about one hour.

If you're a clean-up as you go type, restrain yourself a bit at this point. The other two bowls, spoon, and measuring cups and such you can clean. Leave the flour covered wax paper on the counter though. You're going to need it a couple more times.

Step 7: Turn the dough out onto that floury wax paper you used before. Knead it for 5 to 10 minutes. Return it to the oiled bowl and cover with the cling wrap again. Let it rise for another hour. Again, do not clean up the wax paper. I know you obsessively clean folks are just going crazy out there with a messy piece of wax paper taped to your counter for hours. Muha. Muhahahahaha. }:-)

Step 8: Prep the baking sheet by spreading a sheet of parchment paper over it. DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT use wax paper instead of parchment paper. This does not go well when you get to the baking step. Learn from my mistakes here people. Alternatively, if you don't have parchment paper, you can oil the baking sheet, but I prefer parchment paper.

Step 9: Turn the dough out onto the floury wax paper again. Knead for a few minutes. (If you're not making two braided loaves for Shabbat dinner, you can skip the rest of this step and just form it into a ball.) Divide the dough into two equal parts and set one aside to deal with in a few minutes.

Now, I was going to try to write out instructions for braiding a six-strand challah, but it got all convoluted and I lost track and you likely would have ended up with a really ugly random knot of bread instead of a pretty braid. So instead I'll just present you with the way I learned: this very nice lady named Maya's YouTube video.

Yes, I learned how to braid challah on YouTube. I also learned how to knit there. YouTube isn't all about videos of babies laughing and kittens on skateboards. In any case, if you don't feel like watching the video or going to all that trouble, you can just divide the dough into three pieces and braid it like braiding hair. But I like the six-strand; it's prettier. Repeat the braiding process of your choosing with the other half of the dough.

Step 10: Transfer the braided loaves to the parchment covered baking sheet. Cover loosely with a sheet of cling wrap. Let rise for two hours.

Now, you neat-freaks out there can all rejoice. You're done with the floury wax paper! Throw it out!

Step 11: Mix up the remaining egg. Remove the cling wrap from the bread (you can throw that out now too) and brush the loaves with the egg. Then sprinkle with seeds if you want them. This step (except for the whole removing the cling wrap bit) is entirely optional. I confess, I almost never bother with the seeds. Also, when I'm making bread just for Lee and I, I don't bother with brushing the top with egg either, mainly because I end up dumping most of the egg down the drain that way as I don't really need much for two teeny tiny loaves of bread. But the egg coating does give a crust a nice dark brown color.

Step 12: Bake at 350 for approximately 30 minutes. If you're doing small loaves, it'll probably only take about 20 minutes. If you're making bigger loaves, you might have to go 40 minutes. The trick I've heard about to test the doneness of the bread is to see if it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom of it. I think this test sucks, because you have to take the bread out of the oven, pull it off of baking sheet, flip it upside down, and tap on the bottom. All without burning your hands or dropping or denting the bread. I'm not coordinated enough for that. I "test" by looking at it. If I like the color it has turned, I go with it. Without egg brush, it should be medium golden brown. With the egg brush, it should be darker brown. (But... um... not black. Black is not a  good color when it comes to bread. Black bread is also known as a burnt offering, and that's not what we're going for here.)

That's it! Congratulations, you have made challah. Let it cool for about half an hour before serving by transferring it, parchment paper and all, onto a wire rack. (This is a big reason I like the parchment paper instead of oiling the baking sheet. It's easy to transfer, reducing your risk of burning yourself and/or dropping, denting, breaking, or otherwise disfiguring the bread. It's also way easier to clean up, as you just need to wipe down the baking sheet after it's cooled, and you don't end up with extra oil in an already less-than-health-nut-oriented recipe.) Shabbat Shalom!

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I did something special to the Rosh Hashanah challah. Here are the changes:

In step 9, add raisins to the dough before you knead it, using the kneading process to mix the raisins in. Then, instead of dividing the dough into six parts each and braiding it, roll each half into one long rope and coil it up.

In step 11, brush the loaves with honey instead of egg and seeds.

Tadah! Rosh Hashanah challah! L'shana tovah!

So that's my challah recipe(s). I hope you enjoy.

Recipe adapted from: I feel like I should list some wise old Jewish grandmotherly type, the original Bubbie or something, but much like I learned to braid the bread from YouTube, I learned the recipe from, and I'm totally serious about this, one of those glorious yellow and black books I'm so very addicted to, Jewish Cooking for Dummies, by Faye Levy.


  1. Jewish Cooking for Dummies- I love it.

  2. It is seriously one of the best cookbooks I've ever bought. I got great base recipes for Hamentaschen and just about everything for a Passover seder plate from that one too.