Where to begin when we’re talking about challah bread? I have never met anyone who doesn’t like challah bread. It’s good for breakfast as french toast, I use leftovers as sandwich bread for lunch, it soaks up all the juices of Shakshuka like they were made for each other, and it makes a great dessert in bread pudding. The trouble is finding a recipe that actually works, finding one that’s easy to follow, and knowing a few tricks from people who have made it over and over.
When I first started making challah bread, I made a lot that were as dense as brick, in fact, I considered carrying it with me when I had to walk alone at night instead of Mase. I ended up wasting a lot of groceries and an incomprehensible amount of time. This recipe, on the other hand, comes straight from a religious woman in Mea Shearim, one of the oldest neighborhoods and most religious neighborhoods here in Jerusalem. The ingredients are simple and low in quantity, so if you mess up, you won’t have to run to the store again to buy more sugar. It’s subtly sweet, doesn’t taste too eggy, is soft and pulls apart like cotton candy. Sometimes I add dates, olives & zaatar, and when I make it for the kids I babysit, I always add chocolate chips.
Today, challah, for all its uses, is mainly eaten at Shabbat meals and on holidays and is thought of as that golden, shiny braided loaf. But it actually refers to the small piece of the bread that is blessed, separated from the dough and burned for a blessing, or in ancient times, was set aside for the priests as an offering to God. To learn how to make this blessing, click here.
Makes 3 medium challahs or two large challas
Note** This recipe may look overwhelming because of all the “steps,” but it only looks that way so as to eliminate any confusion. This is a very simple recipe and the photos are just to illustrate steps. Don’t be scared!
What you need:
The real recipe calls for: 2 cups whole wheat four, 2 cups of spelt flour and 2 cups of white flour, but I rarely do the spelt because it is expensive here. I made it with spelt in the beginning of my challah journey, and it was delicious, but without is also a hit! And you’ll still get all the oooos and ahhhs because it’s whole wheat.
1 tblsp active/instant yeast
1/2 c white cane sugar
2 c of warm water, 1 c for the yeast mixture and one for the egg mixture (should be baby bottle temperature, or if you have no experience with that, you should be able to hold your finger in it for five seconds without screaming)
1 tsp salt
3/4 c vegetable oil (plus another tblsp for later when the challah rises)
1 egg (plus one more for later for the egg wash)
And then we’ll add the following after we combine bowls one and two:
3 1/4-3 1/2 c all-purpose flour
3 1/4-3 1/2 c whole wheat bread flour
2 1/2-3 hours! (though it will be rising for most of this so you can continue on with your life)
The last ingredient is to “cry into the dough.” I’d say this is “optional.” I can’t cry on command.
Just some tips so you don’t have to fail as many times as I did:
1. If you want to play with this recipe and sub things in it and out, less oil, different sugar, you can but you should be cautious. You can use agave nectar or regular honey in place of the sugar, and you can reduce the oil to 1/2 c, but don’t play with the salt or the eggs.
2. While you’re braiding the challah, don’t talk to anyone or watch tv at the same time. You will get distracted, forget what you’re doing and end up with a misshapen challah bread.
3. You will need to make challah a few times before really getting a sense of when the dough is ready. There are “tests” you can do to check the dough, but the truth is, it’s just something that you will begin to “feel” as you make them a few times.
4. If your challah is feeling really sticky after it rises, lightly flour your surface or put it in the fridge for 20-30 minutes and let is rise for another 15 when you take it out.
5. If you fail this time, be patient. This is a simple recipe, but it takes time and some arm strength. But I’ll try to explain as best I can so that you won’t have to heed this message.
Pour your yeast and sugar into a soup-sized bowl (glass is best if you want to watch all the action happen). Mix the two together so they are well combined and add the water. If the water is scalding, the yeast will not rise, so make sure it’s the same temperature you would feed to a baby or that you can keep your finger in it for about five seconds without burning yourself. After you’ve added the water, give the mixture a stir and let it sit, unmoved, for about 10 minutes to “proof.” If nothing happens after this time, start over. The yeast was dead. This is what it should look like after two, five and ten minutes. While the yeast is rising, prepare bowl two (should be a large bowl that you will mix the dough in).
The main thing you are looking for with the yeast is that it has become foamy. Combine bowls one and two and give a good few stirs.
Add one more cup of flour and combine it so that you are spreading the dough apart but more trying to cover the dough with the flour and create a dry surface (this is so you can handle the dough).
Lightly flour a work surface and place your dough onto it. Familiarize yourself with this technique for kneading before you begin.
Now you’re going to knead your dough for 10-15 minutes. The technique for knead the dough is once you place your dough onto the floured work surface, tuck all the loose pieces and edges in so you have a circular, clean shape.
Then you’re going to take the top and fold in down to the bottom.
When you fold it down, press the heals of your palms into the bottom of the dough.
Turn the dough 90 degrees to the right and start over again, folding, pressing, turning.
As I said, now fold the top down to the bottom and repeat. You’ll get faster at doing this. But that’s how you should be kneading the dough for the next ten minutes. As you knead, do not dig your fingers into the dough. You want the dough to stop feeling sticky, so turn it gently, fold & press into the dough with force, but don’t spread it outward.
Once your dough no longer feels sticky and feels somewhat light and elastic, push your finger into it. If the mark remains, your dough is ready. If it springs back fast, knead your dough a few minutes longer.
Once your dough is ready, smooth and elastic feeling, place it on the counter and go clean out the bowl you mixed everything in. Wipe it down, add a tblsp on vegetable oil and place your dough into the bowl. Spin it around, flip it over, spin it around and make sure the dough is covered with the oil. If you need to, add a little more oil. Place the bowl inside a large plastic bag (or cover with a damp town, but I think the bag is fun), and let is rise in a warm place for 1-2 hrs OR until the dough has doubled in size. It’s usually somewhere in between.
Once the dough has doubled, place it back onto a surface (it doesn’t need to be floured). The dough will feel AMAZING. Seriously. Spread the dough out into a long rectangular shape and press out all of the air bubbles. How good does that feel?!
If you’re making three challahs, with a knife, divide the challah evenly into three chunks. If you’re making two, divide it evenly in half. For instructions’ sake, I’m going to pretend as if we’re making two large challahs. Take one of the chunks, loosely ball it back up and place it back into the bowl. Divide the other half into two equal pieces, and then each of those pieces into two equal pieces so that you have for squares.
Loosely ball them up and place three to the side. Take one, and flatten it out with a rolling pin or with a cup and take the top and roll it over like you’re making a long snake. If you want to add dates, raisins or olives, add them at this stage by placing the dried fruit in the middle of the flat portion and eventually rolling over it, combining it, as you make your strands.
You’re doing this so the strands are clean and braid nicely. Now, the roll with have a visible seam. Roll it out until the seam disappears or is close to disappearing. Place your hands flat on the roll, fingers tips inward and heals of your palms slightly outward. Roll out the strand like this because we want the middle to be thicker than the ends.
Once you have done this to all four strands, place them side by side, roll the ends a little skinnier, and pinch them off (loosely) at the top.
To do a four-strand braid, you can do this two ways. I’ll show you both. Based on the above picture, let’s call the left most strand #1 and the right most strand #4. The plan: over, under, over. Take #4 and carry it over #3, under #2 and over #1. Now strand #3 has taken the place of #4 (meaning it is now the right most strand). Take the “new” #4 and carry it over #3, under #2 and over #1, just as you did before. Do this until the braid is completed. Now pinch the ends together, twist them and tuck them underneath the braid to make it look clean and round. You can now until the top portion that you loosely pinched together and rearrange them tighter, pinch together (pictured below), twist and tuck underneath the top portion of the braid.
The plan: under 2 backward one, switching from the right most strand to the left most strand. Following the same model above, from the right side take #4 and carry it under #3 and under #2 and then wrap it back over #2 so that it rests between #2 and #3. From the left side take #1, go under #2, under #4 and back over #4. Repeat this pattern until you run out of strand, pinch the ends together, twist and tuck underneath. This is the pattern for a 6-strand braid, but I like the way it makes four-strands look.
Put the challah immediately onto parchment paper on a tray, don’t handle it too much, and let it rise for 25 minutes. If you want an extra-dark challah, brush it with egg yolk now and then you’ll do it one more time before it goes in the oven. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees now. And after they rise, bake for 30-35 minutes. At 25 minutes check your challah though since all ovens are different. You’ll know it’s ready when you lightly tap on the strands and on the base and you hear a thump thump sound. Let cool and cover until ready to serve.
You can also do lighter-colored challas with just one coat of egg wash. If you are only doing one wash, do it right before the challah goes into the oven and you can add sesame seeds or poppy seeds at this point. The lighter ones look like this: