Dough can smell fear.
I understand being intimidated by bread. Some doughs require you to have the patience of a saint, others need quick thinking and quicker hands, but all of them need you to have the courage of your convictions. Much like flipping a pancake, making bread only gets easier with practice.
In my humble o, there’s no better bread to practice on than this one. This recipe comes from a 70’s synagogue fundraiser cookbook that my parents got as a wedding gift. The page is marked in my mother’s perfect handwriting with a little star and the phrase “THIS ONE!”, because there are a billion different challah recipes in there. (No one wanted to be the Tzimmes Lady, apparently.)
Mum’s right, though. It is this one. This is the recipe.
Challah is an enriched, yeasted bread dough, braided and eaten for special occasions. This is the basic explanation. Really, challah is a bread in much the same way that my favorite salads are salads. The only things you really need for a salad are leafy greens and some willpower, but all the best ones have meat, cheese and bread in them (hello Cobb, hello Caesar).
Most traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food is poverty food, which is why most all of our party dishes revolve around chicken and its byproducts (“My GOD, you have a whole chicken? Call everyone we know.”) So even though the only things you really need for bread are flour, salt, yeast, and water, if you had enough eggs, sugar and fat for challah it was obviously time to celebrate.
This is easy to forget when you’re horking down a dry, leathery, too-sweet slice at your cousin’s bar mitzvah because they haven’t called your table for the buffet yet. This recipe is here to make special occasions special again. Once you know how to make challah yourself, you’ll never look back.
Challah is basically a brioche, where the butter has been switched out for Crisco. This is both for kosher reasons (no dairy and meat together, so no corned beef sandwiches if you use butter in the bread), and also, presumably, for 70’s “nutrition” reasons (margarine!).
Unlike a normal brioche, which is desperately sticky, challah is what I call a “friendly” dough. The added fats make it soft and a little greasy, but the relatively large proportion of flour gives it a solidity and a silky texture that makes it one of the easiest doughs I’ve ever worked with.
This was the first bread I ever made by hand, and it is deeply forgiving. This is not a delicate dough – it calls for a ton of yeast, but is meant to have a fairly close-textured crumb. This means that even though I’ve under-proved, over-proved, over- and under-worked this dough, it’s still been delicious every time.
The only time I really fucked it up beyond repair was when I left the salt out entirely and ended up with three poofy, deflated loaves with all the personality of decades-old foil birthday balloons. And people STILL wanted to eat them.
Good challah should have a crisp, dark brown crust and a beautifully soft interior that pulls apart into tender feathery shreds. It should be sweet but not cloying, light but not dry, with an even crumb that’s open enough to soak up butter like that’s its job. Which it is.
This challah gets that job done, and fills your house with one of the best smells known to humankind. It also freezes well, and makes incredible toast the day after – try it with dark cherry or blackberry jam and a dollop of ricotta to change your whole life. Theoretically, I’m sure it would also make incredible French toast or bread pudding, but it’s never lasted long enough in our house for us to know.
Makes two giganto or three medium-big loaves.
Takes three or four hours, including rising and baking time. Make a day of it.
½ oz dry yeast (two packets)
2 tsp sugar
¼ cup warm water
¾ cup sugar
3 tsp salt
½ c shortening (I’m sure you could substitute butter, but I’ve never tried it, so swim at your own risk)
2 cups hot water (not boiling)
3 large eggs, beaten
7 to 7 ½ cups flour
1 egg (or a little reserved from beaten eggs)
Poppy seeds, sesame seeds
Raisins… I guess. If you must. Raisins are gross.
- Dissolve yeast with 2 tsp sugar in ¼ cup warm water – should be lukewarm, test it with a finger.
- In large bowl, mix ¾ cup sugar, 3 tsp salt, shortening, and hot water. Add the salt right after you add the sugar, otherwise if you are me you will forget whether or not you have added it and guess wrong and end up with three deflated skateboard loaves. I’m over it. It’s fine. Anyway.
- The water needs to be hot enough to dissolve the sugar and melt the shortening a little, but the shortening doesn’t need to melt all the way. You can use boiling water if you want, but then you have to wait for it to cool down enough to add your eggs in the next step, which takes forever. I just use hot water from the tap, which gets the job done. Mix everything together so that the sugar dissolves and the shortening breaks up into little chunks.
- When the shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm, add yeast and beaten eggs. The original recipe calls for two eggs, but I added in an extra one by accident a few years ago and I can’t go back. It turns this from Nice Challah to Luxury Challah. It’s essentially cake. I have no regrets.
- To this unprepossessing mixture, add flour one cup at a time and beat with a spoon or the dough hook attachment of your stand mixer. Around cup 6 or 7, the dough will get too stiff to beat. If you’ve got a stand mixer, have your robot beat it up for like 5 minutes? I don’t know. Until it looks smooth and satiny and is together.
- If, like me, you do not have a robot, you have to beat it up by hand. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter (this is where your last half-cup of flour comes in) and knead for 8-10 minutes (I know). As you knead and the flour in the dough hydrates, it’ll get stickier, so sprinkle your last half-cup of flour over the dough little by little as you knead it to keep it from sticking to your counter. Ideally by the time all the flour’s been added the dough should stop sticking to your fingers – it can cling a little, but shouldn’t come off on your hands.
- Like hitting a baseball, the power in kneading comes from your legs and hips, not your arms and shoulders. Space your feet hip width apart, bend your knees, and drive the heel of your hand forward from the center of your dough. People tend to think that kneading is a dig-in-with-your-fingertips thing, but it’s a push-with-your-palm thing. Stretch the far end away from you, but don’t push so hard that it rips. Grip the edge and fold it back onto itself, give it a quarter turn, and do it again. Put on your workout mix and work it out. Switch hands when you get tired. You’re done when it’s smooth and elastic, or when you’re sick of kneading it. If you’re adding raisins (why), this is presumably when that happens.
- Wash out your big bowl and grease it well. Place dough in bowl, turning to grease all sides.
- Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm place until double in bulk and light to the touch (usually about 1 hour, longer if your house is chilly). When your finger pressed into the dough leaves an indentation, it’s ready to work.
- Turn out onto a floured workspace and punch down to assert your dominance: remember it can smell your fear. (Firmly smack the air out of it with your hands.) Leave it to rest for 5-10 minutes, then cut and shape into loaves (see below).
- Place shaped loaves onto baking sheets covered with parchment paper, or loaf tins that have been well greased and floured. Let rise until double in size, or for another hour or so. Preheat your oven to 350f/175c.
- When it’s ready to bake, brush all over with egg wash – save like 2 tbsp of your beaten egg mixture from above, and water it down a little if you need to. Or just use a new egg, it’s fine.
- If you’re topping with sesame or poppy seeds, do that now so that they stick to the egg.
- Bake in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes, but check on it after 30 in case your oven is hotter than mine.
A Note on Baking:
Every amateur baker I know starts out under-baking their loaves, including me. We’re so afraid of things burning in the oven, mostly I think because that’s what happens in cartoons and also because of that one time you forgot you were cooking (hello).
But mostly bread goes wrong when it’s underdone rather than overdone. Challah especially, because it has so much fat and moisture in it, is not going to dry out if you leave it in too long. (It’ll dry out if you cut into it when it’s still hot from the oven because the interior steam will escape.) You want a really nice deep brown color, like Kate Middleton’s hair. Don’t be afraid.
You’ll know it’s done when there’s (light) color all the way down in the seams between the braids, and when it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom. You can also stick a sharp knife into the middle – if it feels rubbery or comes out with any smears, it needs more time. If the top starts getting darker than you’d like but the middle is still raw, make it a little tinfoil hat like you’d do for a roast turkey. (I often have to do this with round loaves.)
Loaf-pan challahs will fit most ovens side-by-side, baking-sheet challahs will have to go on different racks and be switched halfway through baking. If your oven doesn’t fit both challahs at all, put your second challah in the fridge while the first is doing its second prove, then take it out to prove while the first challah is baking.
HOW TO BRAID
When you’re shaping, don’t pull the dough like you would if you were braiding hair. You’re placing it in a pattern, not strapping it down tight so that it doesn’t fall out during your great-niece’s Olympic dressage routine. Letting the dough stay relaxed helps it to rise fully during the second prove and in the oven.
There are a bunch of ways to braid challah. A simple three-strand braid on a parchment-lined baking sheet is tried and true. My trick for getting a nice even braid is to start the braid in the middle, rather than at the ends. I don’t know why this works so well, but see for yourself:
The best way to do it for sandwiches is a three-strand braid in a loaf tin. This bread rises a lot in the oven, and when you leave the challah on a baking sheet it expands sideways as well as up, which looks pretty but can make weird shapes when you slice it for toast. Baking it in a tin directs the rise upward, keeping it more compact and lofty.
Like all breads, this dough will stick like a motherfucker in the loaf tin, so make sure you grease the tin with vegetable oil and then flour it. I also advise letting the loaf cool completely in the tin before you try to turn it out – if it’s still hot, it’ll cling to the sides of the pan and come away in shreds and you will develop an eye twitch.
Finally, when you’re sealing the ends, don’t be afraid to really beat them flat with your hands. I’m serious – show them who’s boss, and you’ll never have a loaf unravel. Just shove the flat ugly sealed part under the loaf to plump it up, and voila.
If it’s a special occasion, like, say, the new year, a round loaf really looks spectacular. Round loaves are intimidating because they look intricate, but I regularly mess up my shaping and they still look great. You can even just coil up a long snake into a snail-shell shape, and it’ll look great, no braiding involved. As long as it’s a lump, you’re basically good.
Here’s how I shape a round loaf:
Divide your dough (half of the above recipe) into four, and roll into snakes of about the same length. Place two snakes vertically, then weave the other two horizontally over and under them so you have an “I have to close this box without tape” situation. Try to get this part as close to the center of all of the snakes as you can.
You should have a pair of strands sticking out in all four directions: north, south, east, and west. One of each pair will be coming from over the dough, one under.
Take the one that was under, and put it over its neighbor. Do this for all four sides of your bread compass.
When you straighten all the strands out, you should see that they all have new neighbors, but they still come in pairs of one-under, one-over.
Working your way around the dough again, take the under-strands and place them over your over-strands.
Writing this out makes me understand why people make YouTube videos for this kind of thing, but you get it.
You’re basically going to repeat this cross-over method until the ends get too short – don’t try to stretch them, when it’s over it’s over.
You should end up with a basketweave-type pattern with a little four-square in the middle and four little nub-twists sticking out at the ends.
Smash the nubs flat so they stick together, then roll them under the body of the loaf like the parachute game we used to do in gym class in the 90’s. Boom. Loaf.
You can also, if you’re feeling extra friendship-bracelety, do a six-strand braid. This is a pain in the ass, but sometimes you want to show off. I get it. I made a whole blog so I could show off.
The two keys to remember with a six-strand braid are Always work from the Right, and go over 2, under 1, over 2.
Remember not to pull anything tight – you’re arranging the dough, not restraining it. Keep it loose, keep it plump (this is the Cook Instead motto.) This was my second loaf that rose in the fridge first, and I also braided it a little tight so it stayed flat like a stollen. Do I care? (Yes) No. Will it still be delicious? (Yes) Yes.