Challah

Challah is the traditional braided bread of the Jewish Sabbath.  Unlike the heavy, somewhat sour everyday rye-based breads that were eaten by the poor of Eastern Europe, challah is made from white wheat flour, which has a lighter texture and flavour. In addition, it contains eggs, which create an even lighter, fluffier crumb, sugar to sweeten it, and oil to tenderize and enrich the loaf.  On the shtetl, where luxuries were few, challah was a once-a-week treat to remind families of the sweetness of life, and the goodness of God.

There are many ways to shape a loaf of challah. The braided loaf is traditional for the weekly sabbath. The braids can be made up of three or more stands of dough, up to twelve (representing the twelve tries of Israel). I’ve never had success braiding more than four strands; I expect it has something to do with my inability to visualize things in three dimensions.  I imagine anyone who can solve a Rubik’s cube would be good at braiding larger numbers of strands.   Which is not to say I’m a slouch at braiding challah … check it out:

As bread making goes, challah is pretty easy and forgiving. The eggs and oil in the dough make it easy to work with; and the sugar that you add seems to boost the leavening power of the yeast.  So unless you totally screw up, the results are usually spectacular.  The crust is somewhat crispy, and the crumb is almost cake-like.  It’s a nice bread to have with dinner, and it makes great French Toast the next morning.

I use a modified recipe from Peter Reinhart’s The Baker’s Apprentice (which, if you like baking bread, I highly recommend).  I increase the amount of oil and sugar, because we like our challah fairly moist and sweet.  His recipe goes like this:

  • 4 cups (18 oz.) unbleached white bread flour
  • 2 tablespoons (1 oz.) sugar — I bump it up to 3 for mine
  • 1 teaspoon (¼ oz.) salt
  • 1-⅓ teaspoons (.15 oz.) instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons (1 oz) vegetable oil — I bump it up to 4, and reduce the amount of water
  • 2 large eggs (3-⅓ oz.), slightly beaten
  • 2 egg yolks (1-¼ oz.), slightly beaten
  • ¾ to 1-⅛ cups (7-9 oz.) water, at room temperature
  • 2 egg whites, whisked until frothy
  • Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
  • (For loaves for Rosh Hashanah it’s traditional to add raisns to the bread.) 1 cup raisins, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes, and then drained and spread on a paper towel to dry.

Note: the measurements in ounces are weight, not volume.  Many bakers (and virtually all professional bakers) prefer to measure ingredients by weight, so I’ve included them.

  1. Mix the first four ingredients in a mixing bowl.  (If you are not using instant yeast, you will need to dissolve the yeast in some of the water and add it along with the rest of the liquids in step 2.)
  2. Add the oil, eggs, egg yolks and ¾ cup of water to the dough, and mix it together until a dough forms. If the dough seems dry, add the remaining water, bit my bit until all of the flour is absorbed. You should have a moderately soft, sticky dough.
  3. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. This gives the flour time to more fully absorb the liquid.
  4. Now, you need to knead the dough. If you have a stand mixer, knead the dough with the dough hook for 6-8 minutes.
    For major holidays, I make extra challah ... ;)
    For major holidays, I make extra challah … 😉

    If you are doing it by hand, lightly flour your counter, turn the dough out and knead for about 8-10 minutes. The dough is ready when it is smooth and satiny, and when it springs back if you prod it firmly with your finger.  Form the dough into a neat ball.

  5. Grease a clean bowl (cooking spray is ideal here, or use an oil mister), and put the dough into it.  Turn the dough over as few times in the bowl to coat the dough lighlty with oil. Cover with plastic wrap, and set it aside to ferment and rise until it’s doubled in bulk, about one to one-and-a-half hours.
  6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, and deflate it.
  7. If you are using raisins, pat the dough into a large rectangle, and sprinkle with the raisins.  Then, roll the dough up, and proceed with to shape the loaf.
    Tip: Be gentle with the dough if you’ve add raisins.  Rough handling and very firm pressure while shaping will cause the rains to burst, and you’ll get dark smears through the dough.
  8. Divide the dough it into as many equal sections as you want to use for braiding your bread.  I suggest four, as a four-strand braid looks more impressive than a three-strand one.  Weighing each piece is helpful here, as you want them to be the same size and weight.
  9. Form each piece of dough into a strand about 18 inches long. Now you’re ready to braid the strands into a loaf.
  10. There are many techniques for doing a four-braid loaf. For an oblong loaf, I favour the one described on this page, because I find I’m less likely to get confused about which strand I’m working with, when.  For a round loaf called a faiglin, which is traditional for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkoth, these instructions are great.
  11. Once you’ve braided your loaf, set it on a parchment-lined baking sheet, mist with spray oil, and cover lightly with a kitchen towel for the final rise, 45 minutes to an hour.
  12. Half way through the rising period, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and set the rack in the middle level.
  13. During the final rise, the dough should almost double in bulk.  It’s ready for the oven if, when you poke it gently, and it springs back slowly.  If it springs back quickly, you need to let it rise some more. If it doesn’t spring back at all, it’s over-risen. In this last case, you can try repeating steps 6-9.  If the yeast has enough oomph left in it, the dough might successfully rise again … it might take a little longer, but the only other alternative you have is to toss the over-risen loaf into the garbage.
  14. When the loaf is ready, grab the bowl of reserved egg whites, and brush the loaf carefully all over.
  15. (Optional) Sprinkle the loaf generously with sesame or poppy seeds, then slide the baking sheet into the oven.
  16. Bake the bread for 25-30 minutes, until it is a deep golden colour.  If you have an instant-read thermometer, plunge it into the centre of the loaf (from the bottom, so you don’t mar the appearance of it); if the thermometer reaches 200 degrees, the bread is done.
  17. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool on a rack.  Don’t cut into the loaf until it has cooled for at least 40 minutes.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

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