Here is a bread that is as much a pleasure to look at as it is to eat. Check out that braiding! And the way it practically glows on the table! Slice yourself a piece and cherish the pillow-soft interior, simultaneously rich and slightly sweet. Challah is a bread that should be in everyone's repertoire. For celebrating everything from Hanukkah to Sunday supper, challah is the just the bread for the job.
At its root, challah is a very straightforward bread to make. The dough is enriched with eggs and oil, while a few tablespoons of sugar add some sweetness. It doesn't require any fussy techniques and can be made from start to finish in the space of an afternoon.
The real magic comes in braiding the loaf. Even a simple three-stranded braid is impressive, though a four- or six-stranded braid (as shown below) will bring the house down. For major celebrations, like the Jewish high holidays, you can also coil the long braided loaf into a circle. A simple brushing of egg white is all you need to make that loaf shiny and magnificent.
We all know that leftover challah should go directly into a frying pan to make French toast. I also love it in bread puddings and even for sandwiches. It might sound a little strange, but challah piled high with thin-cut roast beef is pure heaven.
For celebrations big and small, there is nothing better.
How to Make Challah BreadMakes 1 loaf (about 20 slices)
What You Need
2 teaspoons active dry or instant yeast
1 cup (8 ounces) lukewarm water
4 - 4 1/2 cups (20 - 22 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) white granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk (reserve the white for the egg wash)
1/4 cup (2 ounces) neutral-flavored vegetable oil
Standing mixer (optional)
Large mixing bowl
Bench scraper or sharp knife
1. Dissolve the yeast. Sprinkle the yeast over the water in a small bowl, and add a healthy pinch of sugar. Stir to dissolve the yeast and let stand until you see a thin frothy layer across the top. This means that the yeast is active and ready to use. (If you do not see this or if your yeast won't dissolve, it has likely expired and you'll need to purchase new yeast.)
2. Mix the dry ingredients. Whisk together 4 cups of the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer (or in a large mixing bowl if kneading by hand).
3. Add the eggs, yolk, and oil. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs, egg yolk, and oil. Whisk these together to form a slurry, pulling in a little flour from the sides of the bowl.
4. Mix to form a shaggy dough. Pour the yeast mixture over the egg slurry. Mix the yeast, eggs, and flour with a long-handled spoon until you form a shaggy dough that is difficult to mix.
5. Knead the dough for 6-8 minutes. With a dough hook attachment, knead the dough on low speed for 6-8 minutes. (Alternatively, turn out the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for about 10 minutes.) If the dough seems very sticky, add flour a teaspoon at a time until it feels tacky, but no longer like bubblegum. The dough has finished kneading when it is soft, smooth, and holds a ball-shape.
6. Let the dough rise until doubled. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place somewhere warm. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
7. Separate the dough and roll into ropes. Separate the dough into three or six equal pieces, depending on the type of braid you'd like to do. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope roughly 1-inch thick and 16 inches long. If the ropes shrink as you try to roll them, let them rest for 5 minutes to relax the gluten and then try again.
8. Braid the dough. Gather the ropes and squeeze them together at the very top. If making a 3-stranded challah, braid the ropes together like braiding hair or yarn and squeeze the ends together when complete. If making a 6-stranded challah, the directions are as follows:
Braiding 6-Stranded Challah - The name of the game here is "over two, under one, over two." Carry the right-most rope over the two ropes beside it, slip it under the middle rope, and then carry it over the last two ropes. Lay the rope down parallel to the other ropes; it is now the furthest-left strand. Repeat this pattern until you reach the end of the loaf. Try to make your braid as tight as possible. Your braid will start listing to the left as you go; it's ok to lift it up and recenter the loaf if you need to. Once you reach the end, squeeze the ends of the ropes together and tuck them under the loaf.
At this point place your loaf is fairly long and skinny. If you'd like to make a celebration ring, stretch the loaf a little longer and pull the ends toward each other to create a circle. You can either squeeze the ends together, or if you're feeling adventurous, braid them into a continuous circle.
If you're making a regular loaf (as pictured), you need to "plump" it a little to tighten the ropes into more of a loaf shape. Place your left palm at the end of the braid and your right palm at the top, and gently push the two ends toward each other, just like plumping a pillow in slow motion. Then slip your fingers under the dough along either side and gently lift the dough while cupping it downwards. (This isn't a vital step, so don't worry if you're not sure you did it correctly.)
9. Let the challah rise. Line a baking sheet with parchment and lift the loaf on top. Sprinkle the loaf with a little flour and drape it with a clean dishcloth. Place the pan somewhere warm and away from drafts and let it rise until puffed and pillowy, about an hour.
10. Brush the challah with egg white. About 20 minutes before baking, heat the oven to 350°F. When ready to bake, whisk the reserved egg white with a tablespoon of water and brush it all over the challah. Be sure to get in the cracks and down the sides of the loaf.
11. Bake the challah. Slide the challah on its baking sheet into the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through cooking. The challah is done when it is deeply browned and registers 190°F in the very middle with an instant-read thermometer.
12. Cool the challah. Let the challah cool on a cooling rack until just barely warm. Slice and eat.
• Substituting Butter: If you don't need to keep a kosher table, you can substitute melted butter for the oil in this recipe.
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(Images: Emma Christensen)