Challah is a special bread of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, usually braided and typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and major Jewish holidays (other than Passover). Ritually acceptable challah is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering. Challah may also refer to the dough offering. In Rabbinic terminology, challah often refers to the portion of dough which must be separated before baking, and set aside as a tithe for the Kohen, since the biblical verse which commands this practice refers to the separated dough as a “challah”. The practice of separating this dough sometimes became known as separating challah (הפרשת חלה) or taking challah. The food made from the balance of the dough is also called challah.
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water, divided
- 1 packet instant yeast (8 gm) or 2 teaspoons (8 gm) of active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar (5 gm)
- 1 large egg
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar or 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tbsp avocado oil (or sunflower oil or canola oil)
- 2 teaspoons salt (10 gm)
- 4 1/2–6 cups all purpose flour (563 to 750 gm)
- Optional: Raisins or chocolate chips (1 ½ cups of either)
- Optional Toppings: Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, cinnamon sugar or kosher salt
Egg Wash Ingredients:
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon cold water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
I always use SAF instant yeast since it is so reliable. If you use instant yeast, you can skip this step and simply add the yeast to your dry ingredients. If you have only active dry yeast, pour ¼ cup of the lukewarm water (about 110 degrees) into a large mixing bowl. Add 1 packet of active dry yeast and 1 tsp of sugar to the bowl, stir to dissolve. In 10 minutes the yeast should have activated, meaning it will look expanded and foamy. See the references for an explanation of the different types of yeast.
Once your yeast has activated, add remaining 1 ¼ cup lukewarm water to the bowl along with the egg, egg yolks, honey, oil, and salt. Use a whisk to thoroughly blend the ingredients together. Begin adding the flour to the bowl by half-cupfuls, stirring with a large spoon each time flour is added. When mixture becomes too thick to stir, use your hands to knead. Continue to add flour and knead the dough until it’s smooth, elastic, and not sticky. I ended up adding about 5 cups of flour.
Place a saucepan full of water on the stove to boil. Meanwhile, remove the dough from your mixing bowl and wash out the bowl. Grease the bowl with oil. Push the dough back into the bottom of the bowl, then flip it over so that both sides are slightly moistened by the oil.
Cover the bowl with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Place the bowl of dough on the middle rack of your oven. Take the saucepan full of boiling water and place it below the rack where your dough sits. Close the oven, but do not turn it on. The pan of hot water will create a warm, moist environment for your dough to rise. This is a great tip from Tori Avey, I do this now for all my bread projects. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, or until the dough doubles in size.
Take the dough bowl out and punch it down several times to remove air pockets. Place it back inside the oven and let it rise for 1 hour longer, or until the dough doubles in size. Take the dough out of the oven. Flour a smooth surface like a cutting board. Punch the dough down into the bowl a few times, then turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Knead for a few minutes, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from feeling sticky.
Now the dough is ready to braid. For a classic 3-braid, divide the dough into three parts. Flatten the dough to 1/4”, roughly rectangular, and roll each into a rope about 20 inches long. If the dough starts to shrink back as you roll, cover it and let it rest for about 10 minutes, then resume rolling. The short rest gives the gluten a chance to relax. The actual technique to braid the challah is too complicated to explain and is well described in the references I have provided.
After the challah is braided, place it on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Only put a single challah braid on a cookie sheet, since they tend to expand a lot when baking.
Prepare the egg wash by beating the egg, salt and water. Use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of the mixture onto the visible surface of your challah. If adding sesame seeds or other toppings, sprinkle it on the damp dough at this point, the egg wash helps it stick. Reserve the leftover egg wash.
Let the braid rise 30 to 45 minutes longer. The dough is ready to bake when you press your finger into the dough and the indentation stays, rather than bouncing back.
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. The challah needs to bake for about 40 minutes. After 20 minutes, take the challah out of the oven and coat the center of the braid with another thin layer of egg wash. This area tends to expand during baking, exposing areas that will turn white unless they are coated with egg wash.
This challah turned out beautifully, and once it had cooled, but was still warm, we enjoyed a slice with lots of butter.
When toasted, you can see the many layers formed by rolling and braiding the dough. If you are looking for a recipe for challah, this one from Tori Avery is the best that I have found.