It’s that time of year again — grab your dreidels, and make some challah!
Regardless of your religious affiliation or lack thereof, anybody can make and appreciate a good challah. In fact, challah may be best-appreciated the following day in the form of Challah French Toast, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
There are certain breads that I’m completely willing to sell-out on and use my super-duper dough hook to save some time and energy, but, others, I feel, just should be made by hand. Challah is one of these sacred loaves. You certainly can make the dough in a standmixer, but, especially during the holidays, if you have the time, make it the old-fashioned way!
A good challah has its glutens lovingly-developed with careful kneading and watchful waiting. The risen dough is then woven into an intricate-looking plait, allowed to rest, given a healthy shellac of egg-wash, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked to perfection. The resulting loaf is a deep golden-brown, genuflection-worthy, centerpiece. When sliced, a feather-light interior meets your eyes, and a rich, eggy flavor greets your taste buds. You will offend nobody with this loaf, except maybe Celiac patients, vegans, and people who hate pretty things and puppies.
There are many options for challah-styling, but I’ll just show the classic 4-strand braid in this post. I chose to join the two ends of the braid together, forming a round loaf, but the tradish loaf is a long 3-strand, 4-strand, or even 6-strand braid. All of the braiding methods are essentially the same, basically a repetitive twisting process in which you make sure that you avoid two consecutive “over” twists with the same strand. I have included a pictoral, color-coded diagram for the 4-strand braid in the recipe below (my apologies if you’re colorblind).
Challah is incredibly versatile, not only in shape, but also in method of consumption. You can make big loaves, small loaves, round loaves, long loaves, mini twisted loaves, topped with seeds, topped with salt, topped with pearl sugar…the possibilities are endless!
Classic Challah [hand-method]
Yield: 1 braid
1 envelope active dry yeast (~2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/2 cup warm water (shouldn’t be too hot, though — you should be able to comfortably submerge your finger)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey (bonus points for local honey)
1 egg + 1 yolk, room temp, lightly beaten with a fork
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 1/2″ cubes & at room temp
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon canola oil (for greasing bowl)
Egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with ~1 teaspoon water…you won’t need it all — dump the extra in an omelette!)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the yeast, water, and brown sugar, and let sit for 10 minutes — mixture should be frothy and foamy (if not, your yeast is dead and you need to start again). Add granulated sugar, honey, lightly beaten eggs, butter, and 1 cup of the flour, and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until combined (it’s fine if you still have visible butter chunks because they’ll work into the dough as you knead). Let sit 5 minutes. Stir in remaining flour and the salt, stirring until dough forms a rough mass. Scrape dough out onto a floured counter top, and knead for 8 minutes, adding no more than an additional 1/4 – 1/3 cup of flour — the dough should be sticky but become more manageable with continued kneading (I like to use the slap-method once the dough gets past the super-sticky phase: literally hold the dough firmly and slap it down on the counter, pick up the end now farthest from you, fold it back on itself, and repeat…very cathartic). After 8 minutes (~3 minutes of traditional kneading & ~5 minutes of slap-kneading), the dough should be smooth, still slightly-tacky, and stretch pretty far without ripping. Pour the canola oil into a clean, medium-sized mixing bowl, and spread it around the interior of the bowl with you hands. Plop kneaded dough into the greased bowl, and cover with a clean kitchen towel that has been dampened with warm water (shouldn’t be dripping wet, just uniformly moistened). Allow to double in bulk, ~ 2 hours, in a warm, draft-free location.
For a 4-strand braid: Punch down dough, and cut it into 4 equal pieces with a pair of kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Roll each piece between your hands and stretch it to ~12-15″ in length. Place the four strands next to each other, and gently join the strands together at the top, fanning out the tails, as shown in the first step, below:
Twist the right-middle strand (blue) over the left-middle strand (pink)
Twist the left-most strand (green) over the left-middle strand (now blue) & twist the right-middle strand (now pink) over the right-most strand (purple)
Twist the right-middle strand (now purple) over the left-middle strand (now green)
Twist the left-most strand (now blue) over the left-middle strand (now purple) & twist the right-middle strand (now green) over the right-most strand (now pink)
Continue pattern (twisting middle strands, then twisting outer strands, then back to middle,…) until you reach the ends. Tuck loose ends together.
Transfer braided loaf to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap that has been lightly sprayed with canola oil (to prevent sticking), and place in a warm, draft-free spot to double in size, ~1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees farenheit. Once loaf has doubled, remove plastic wrap, and brush gently with an even layer of egg wash (this is what gives that beautiful golden color to the baked challah). Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if using. Bake 25-30 minutes — loaf will be deep golden-brown and sound hollow when lightly tapped on the bottom. Immediately transfer to wire rack to prevent the bottom of the loaf from becoming soggy. Let stand 20 minutes prior to slicing.
Store leftovers in an airtight container, at room temp, for up to 2 days.