I haven’t decided yet if covering challah for my first post is a cop-out…or an obligation. However, after long deliberation I decided I had to go with it.
You see, challah was the first Jewish dish that I tackled deliberately. It was right around Rosh Hashanah and, being newly in love, I had agreed to go up and meet ALL of my husband’s family at their annual dinner. I didn’t want to show up empty handed and for some reason I thought that baking bread…for the first time…was a good idea! Naturally I panicked and got flustered and covered my kitchen in flour and dough. Yet, somehow, even that first batch turned out edible and downright tasty! Now I can confidently say that if yeast is the most terrifying ingredient you can find in your kitchen, challah is a good place to start!
Challah (pronounced by us shiksas as hah-la) is the bread traditionally served on the Sabbath. You know the one I’m talking about! That lovely, golden, braided loaf that looks too big and good to be true. The trickiest thing about making challah (or any bread for that matter) is that it takes T-I-M-E. You can NOT rush this . Sure, there are some things that speed up the process a little bit, but in the end you are spending some time with this dish. So, if it is your first time, pick a lazy day and just enjoy it!
This recipe was adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”
2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast
1 1/3 cups milk (you can sub water if you prefer)
1 tablespoon honey
3 eggs (plus one extra yolk for later)
5+ cups of all-purpose flour (not added all at once)
2 teaspoons salt
oil for greasing the bowl and baking sheet
pastry brush or new/clean paint brush
1. Active Dry Yeast needs to be “woken” up before you can use it. On the stove top, gently heat the milk to 100F. You don’t want to go OVER this or you will kill the yeast (not good!). Pour about 1/4 cup into the large bowl and add the yeast. You can also put in a pinch of sugar if you want to “feed” the yeast, but it isn’t necessary. Give it a quick stir and then let it sit for about ten minutes. Really, ten minutes, so walk away if you have to. By the end, the milk will start to look..well…weird. A bubbly brown goo will have started to take over the milk. If it doesn’t, wait a few more minutes, if it still doesn’t then I’m very sorry but your yeast is bad and you’ll want to chuck it and start over.
2. After your yeast is awake, pour in the rest of the milk. Then stir in the salt, honey and the 3 whole eggs (the extra yolk is for later!). After it is all mixed together put in about 3 cups of all-purpose flour. At this point, when you mix it, it should come together into a shaggy, sticky ball.
3. Pour about 1/2 cup of flour on your counter or a non-stick mat. Dump the dough out onto the counter and rub a little flour into your hands. Start kneading the dough, adding the rest of the 1/2 cup of flour as needed. You may have to add up to another cup of flour to bring the dough together. It doesn’t take too long to knead the dough, I’d say less then 5 minutes. In the end it will still be a little sticky, but you shouldn’t come away with globs of dough on your hands.
4. Lightly oil a large bowl. Shape the dough into a ball and dump it into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and set it aside. I usually stick it in my oven so it is out of the way and gets the warmth that helps it develop. You are going to leave this for at least 1 1/2 hours, or until it doubles in size. Yes, it really takes that long to get the flavor that you want so..once again..walk away.
**One of my FAVORITE tricks comes from Alton Brown of “Good Eats.” He recommends that you use a large clear bow to let the dough rise in. After you dump the dough in the bowl you can put a strip of tape on the outside. Then, you have an easy gauge to see when it has doubled in size.**
5. Once the dough is ready, gently push it down and dump it out onto a floured counter. While some recipes will tell you to “punch” the dough down, that is counter productive, just push it down gently and knead it carefully one or two times. Separate the dough into three equal parts and shape them into balls. Cover these with a towel and leave them alone for 15 minutes.
6. Take each ball and roll it out into a rope about 12-14 inches long and 1 inch thick. I usually have to squeeze the dough into the right length. Lightly oil the baking sheet and put the three ropes of dough on it.
7. This is the fun part! Take those three ropes and braid them together. Seriously, you use the same technique that you use to braid hair. If you aren’t sure how to braid then just do a quick internet search, it is very easy. You will need to squeeze the ends together so that they stay. Cover the bread with the towel and leave it for 30 minutes. Oh! Turn on the oven and let it pre-heat right now too.
9. Put the bread in the oven and set the timer for 40 minutes. HOWEVER, you will want to start checking the bread at about 20 minutes. With my oven, it is usually done after 30 and each oven is different. One of the best ways to tell that it is done is when your house starts to smell delicious! However, there is another way to tell. Use the thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your bread. When it is at 200F, and the bread sounds hollow when you tap the bottom, then it is ready.
10. Cool the bread on a wire rack. Baking wisdom says that you need to let the bread fully cool before you slice into it. If you can’t wait to dig in, and trust me you won’t, at least let it cool enough so you don’t burn your tongue!
11. Eat! Celebrate! You just tackled yeast (maybe for the first time?) and made a kickin’ challah. Shiksa, you are ready for anything.
PS: There is a VERY good chance that you will have leftover challah. Never fear, it makes the most amazing french toast.