How to Make Challah
Click here to view on YouTube
Nearly every Friday morning for the past 40 some years, I have made challah – a special, braided bread eaten by Jews for the Sabbath and other holidays, although now it is fairly mainstream and I notice “Challah French Toast” on menus everywhere. I love the process of starting with four main ingredients – flour, egg, water and yeast – and ending up with a sweet, wonderful loaf of bread.
As empty nesters, my husband and I finish a large (2 ½ lb) loaf of bread by the end of the weekend. We slice it with soup or have it with dinner Friday night. Saturday morning the challah often morphs into French Toast, and the rest of the weekend sliced challah makes an appearance in all kinds of sandwiches. If there is a bit left over, I make bread crumbs and store them in the freezer. Whenever I visit my grandchildren, I inevitably end up baking at least one challah! (My children do this even when I am not there, but I like the grandmotherly touch.)
Somewhere long ago I recall reading that the smell of freshly baked bread is important for young children…maybe I made this up or dreamed it, but there is nothing like the smell that emanates from the kitchen when challah is in the oven. I have never found a “store bought” challah that tastes half as wonderful as mine.
I first learned to make challah in my early twenties, working as a nurse in Iowa. I attended a cooking demonstration, and at that stage of my life I was baking all kinds of bagels and rye breads and was anxious to learn yet another type of bread. My mom really didn’t bake bread often; she had five of us under foot. I recall that the recipe I wrote down from the class and the braiding technique worked out the first time through, yet I didn’t love the taste of that challah. It wasn’t sweet enough or dense enough for my palate.
The recipe that follows is truly my own, and believe me I have tried roughly a dozen various formulas. I like a sweet, less eggy loaf. The amount of flour you need varies with the size of the eggs and with the weather. For example, if it is rainy you might need a bit more flour. Baking bread is an art, not a science. I began making this bread by hand, and then transitioned to a stand mixer or Cuisinart. At this point in my life, I stir and knead the bread without the help of a machine because I love the feel of silky dough on my fingers. You can easily double this recipe if you would like two large loaves (you can even freeze one) or one large loaf and a pan of cinnamon rolls. Bread making is one of my favorite past times, and I make all kinds of 100% whole grain breads, cinnamon rolls, oatmeal-honey bread, pumpernickel, buttermilk bread … you name it. The principles are the same.
This can be even simpler if you are pressed for time. You can make the dough, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, take it out (it will have risen), braid it, let it rise for an hour and bake it. This is more manageable for those of you with a hectic, busy life; I know my children employ this technique because they are rarely around for 3 hours in a row. I realize that this is not the most healthful bread because it calls for white flour and sugar. I tried experimenting with whole wheat challahs and somehow it doesn’t seem the same. So for challah, I make an exception to my “at least 50% whole grain bread.”
You can view the video I included for a tutorial that includes instructions for braiding a round loaf. You can make a 3 braid, 4 braid (my go-to type) or a 6 braid loaf (my sisters do this). The dough can produce two smaller loaves or you can bake a smaller loaf and a pan of cinnamon rolls or pull aparts. Endless possibilities!
Marilyn’s Global Challah
Makes one large or two small loaves
- 1 1/4 c warm water
- 1 package or 2 slightly heaping tsp dry yeast – not the quick yeast for bread machines (each package varies, so check yours.)
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 2 eggs, room temperature (1 for the dough and reserve the other to glaze it)
- Dash vanilla
- 2 Tbs. (1/4 stick) very soft butter, soy margarine or canola oil
- 1 ½ tsp. salt
- Scant ½ cup sugar
- 3 cups bread flour + 1 more cup measured out
- Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Whisk together warm water, yeast and sugar and wait 5 minutes until it bubbles.
Add 1 egg, vanilla and butter to the liquid yeast mixture.
Mix up the salt, sugar and 3 cups of flour in the large mixing bowl. Slowly add liquids into flour mixture. If needed, add the last cup of flour or you may need less depending on the weather, the size of the eggs and so on.
Finish kneading on the counter on a little flour. The dough should be a little sticky. Put in oiled large bowl and let rise covered with a dish towel or plastic wrap for one hour. Punch down and let it rest for five minutes. Put in large braid (2 ½ lb loaf) OR two smaller loaves (1 ¼ lb each) on parchment paper. Let it rise another 50-60 minutes covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap.
Brush the top with egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp of water) mixed w/a little vanilla and sprinkle w/sesame or poppy seeds if desired. Brush seeds again with egg wash so they don’t come off.
Bake at 350 for 32 minutes for a huge loaf or 28-30 minutes if you’re making smaller loaves/rolls. The internal temperature should be 190 degrees if you have an thermometer to test the center of the loaf. (Round braided loaf takes 35+ min)
Remove from the baking sheet onto a rack to cool. Wait at least ½ hour to cut. Do not wrap in a plastic bag or freeze for at least 5 hours so the core is completely cool.
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