About the Recipe
When I first started baking challah, it came out looking like pita. I was pregnant and we’d moved to Colorado Springs. I had to go to the library to look up high altitude baking (this was in the eighties) and while I was there, I picked up an old book on a display shelf. I stood there reading about an eccentric detective in NYC who liked growing orchids, reading, and eating gourmet meals prepared by his personal chef. It was Rex Stout, and it was riveting, but I didn’t borrow the book. I considered myself to be a reader of literature, not mysteries.
I learned how to bake challah at altitude and ended up borrowing four novels that day. I’d always loved reading and usually read between forty and fifty books a year. Mysteries were iffy because they often included violence or disgusting discussions about the trajectory of blood and the placement of body parts. Mysteries, I thought, were a lower form of literature, like romances. I was a reading snob.
6 cups (720 g) bread flour (If you can’t get it, use all-purpose flour and start the night before)
2 room temp eggs, lightly mixed (plus one egg white if you wish to do an egg wash before baking)
1 ½ tsp (9 g) fine-grained sea salt
¼ cup (50g) canola or any olive oil
1 packet or 1 TBSP (9g) active dry yeast
¼ cup sugar (50g) or honey (85g)
1 ½ to 2 cups of room temperature or lukewarm water (More as needed)
In a large mixing bowl, stir the yeast, sweetener, and 1 cup of flour into 1 ½ cups of lukewarm water.
It should start to bubble in a moment or two. Add the rest of the flour, eggs, salt, and oil to the bowl
Use your hands or a scraper to pull the dough into a ball, adding water as needed into the bowl.
When it forms a ball, remove and knead until the dough feels like an earlobe (even though it sounds gross) I count up to at least fifty turns, each turn including the right and left side.
Place in a large, lightly sprayed bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature (not in front of the window!) until it is double in bulk (about an hour), or in the fridge overnight, or overnight on the counter (a good method if it’s a pandemic and you can’t get bread flour).
Once the dough is doubled (or the next morning), punch it down, cover the bowl loosely with a tea cloth or plastic wrap, let it double in size again for about an hour
If you are making authentic ‘Challah,’ this is where you take an olive-sized piece of the dough and bake it in the toaster after saying the traditional blessing.
This dough is enough for 2 good-sized loaves, 4 small loaves, or 8 personal loaves if you want to give each guest a separate loaf. For 2 loaves, divide the dough in half, and divide one half into the number of pieces you want to braid. There are plenty how-to braid videos, and you can get creative!
I do 4, 5 and 6 braid challahs, but 3-braided challahs taste just as delicious. For beginners who haven’t raised long-haired children, divide each half into 3 pieces of dough and roll them into foot-long ropes. Set the three ropes of dough in front of you on the counter and pinch them together at the top. Now take the rope on the right and place it over the rope in the middle. Take the rope on the left and place it over the NEW middle rope (the one you already moved). Again, lift the rope on the right and place it over the middle rope. Keep going. Before you know it, you’ll have a braid!
Tuck the ends of each loaf under and set them in place with a little water.
Place your braided loaves on a silicone mat-covered or sprayed baking pan with space in between. The loaves will poof up more. Cover the loaves loosely with a tea towel for the last rise, for about an hour, or until you are ready to bake.
Then, preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C
OPTIONAL: Just before you set them in the oven, in a small bowl, stir the white of one egg with a teaspoon of honey and brush the loaves. You can also sprinkle the loaves with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or chopped dehydrated onion.
Baking time will depend on the size of the loaves and on your oven. If you bake 2 loaves, check at 25 minutes – if they aren’t golden brown and hollow when you tap, bake for an additional 5 minutes. If you are baking 4 loaves, check after 20 minutes. If you are baking 8 loaves, check after 15 minutes. And in each case, add an additional 5 minutes if needed. Final internal temperature should be about 200° – but the golden brown and hollow sound will tell you that the loaves are done.