if i had to choose one food that sums up my entire life in terms of baking, it would probably be challah. it’s a staple in jewish kitchens everywhere – a braided bread that is used to start every shabbat (sabbath) meal. some people make it with eggs, and some people make it with water. some people make it sweet, and some people don’t. some people top it with spices, and some people leave it plain. some people like it dense and chewy, and some people like it light and fluffy. But no matter how it is made, it has a comforting warmth that has been enjoyed by families and communities around the world for generations.
my mom has made challah every week for as long as i can remember. she is famous for it among her friends. hers is sweet, chewy, and a tiny bit fluffy, and whenever i am home, the smell of it coming out of the oven on friday afternoon transports me straight back to my childhood. it’s one of my favorite things about visiting home.
the challah that i make now is a little different from my mom’s. the biggest difference is that she uses a bread machine, and i do it completely by hand, so the final texture gets changed a bit. my recipe is the result of a lot of trial and error over the years, but it’s at the point now where i make it over and over again, and i don’t see any reason to ever try another method. it is made partially with white whole wheat flour, which gives it a bit of a nutty flavor while keeping it soft. i also use bread flour, because that gives it a nice, dense texture. the final product is a beautifully sweet, chewy, and flavorful loaf that very rarely yields leftovers. it’s a real keeper.
the perfect challah.
- 4 tablespoons (or 6 packets) active dry yeast
- 4 cups lukewarm water
- 2 cups sugar**
- 1½ cups vegetable oil
- 4 eggs
- 8 cups white whole wheat flour***
- 8 cups bread flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- another egg
- a splash of water
- combine the yeast, water, and a tablespoon of the sugar in a large bowl (like, really large) and let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes, until the yeast becomes very foamy.
- add the rest of the sugar, the oil, and the 4 eggs and stir to combine. then, add the whole wheat flour (or the bread flour, or mix them together and add half of the mixture - it doesn't really matter). once it is incorporated, add the salt and the rest of the flour. mix everything together - at some point, you will need to ditch the spoon and use your hands. keep kneading with your hands until you have a dough that is smooth, elastic, and just a tiny bit sticky (note: getting the dough perfect is sort of an art. sometimes i add a little more flour, sometimes a little less. if you make this challah enough times, you will learn to tell when the dough "feels right." but no matter what, these measurements should get it just about right.).
- once you are done kneading, cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for 1½ to 2 hours, until it doubles in volume. and once or twice while it is rising, you want to punch the dough down - make a fist and take out all your aggression.
- after the dough is done rising, separate it into 6 equal portions. shape them into loaves, braid them, or make them into whatever other shape you want. i like to do mine in a 6-piece braid, which is what you see in the pictures above - there plenty of video tutorials on youtube that show how to do this.
- once all your loaves are braided, arrange them on two parchment-lined baking sheets and preheat the oven to 350°f. cover the loaves with a towel and let them rise one last time while the oven is heating, for about 30 minutes.
- make an egg wash by mixing together your last egg and a splash of water. brush the wash on top of the challahs. if you want, now is when you can top your challahs with spices or anything else - i've seen people do sesame seeds, za'atar, cinnamon sugar, garlic powder, or even a crumble topping. or you can just leave the challahs plain, which is a more-than-acceptable option. put the baking sheets into the oven for about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway, until the challahs are golden and if you turn one over, the bottom sounds hollow when you tap on it. take them out of the oven and let them cool!
*this recipe makes a lot of challah. if you eat three meals over shabbat, and want two big challahs at every meal, then you're golden. but if this is too much for you, the recipe can be easily cut in half (to be honest, that's what i usually do). these challahs also freeze really well, if you're the hoarding type. to freeze them, wrap them really well in aluminum foil while they are still a tiny bit warm and put them straight into the freezer. just take a loaf out and let it sit at room temperature for at least a couple of hours before you want to serve it.
**sometimes i use vanilla sugar instead of regular sugar. it adds a really nice background flavor, but if you want to stick with regular sugar, that's just fine. if you want to make your own vanilla sugar, place a split vanilla bean into a jar with 2 cups of sugar, and let the jar sit at room temperature for at least two weeks, shaking it every couple of days.
***like i said above, i really like the flavor and texture that i get from a combination of white whole wheat flour and bread flour. but you can use pretty much any kind of flour (or combination of flours) here and the recipe will still work - different flours will just yield a slightly different texture.