bread and baking part 1: introduction, challah

February 22, 2012

Part 1 in a series on bread and baking.

Challah is catching on. I love this.

whole wheat challah

whole wheat challah, six stranded braids

In the fall of 2007, I visited my aunt and uncle in Boston – I was living in Brooklyn at the time. I was determined to learn to bake challah from my uncle, who had been doing so for years. I had never baked bread before. So intimidating and daunting!

Not so. Yeast and honey. Hot water. Eggs, oil, and salt. Flour. Knead until elastic. I had the hang of it! The beauty is in the braiding, I think.

That started me on baking all kinds of other breads and I became a sort of bread evangelist. I simply could not believe that this thing that was actually so easy to make had become a sort of holy grail of homemade goods – that food culture in the US has forced us to be so reliant on corporations that we’ve lost touch with something so basic. And in recent months I’ve seen an explosion of challah bakers among my friends. I love that the homemade food movement has reached challah at impressive levels. Because the secret is out: homemade challah is better than ANY bakery’s.

Some people guard their recipes closely, especially if it’s a passed-down recipe from a relative, like a family heirloom. I never understood this. If a recipe works, everyone should make it! It should be distributed with pride. Shouted from the rooftops. And I happen to think that this is the absolute perfect challah recipe – more bread-y than cake-y, more savory than sweet. Can be sweetened with raisins, currants, or chocolate chips, or filled with apples. Is perfectly delicious all by itself. Thank you to uncle David, for the recipe, inspiration, and the lesson!

Never made challah before? Try it. Just once. Maybe one of the most gratifying moments of your week: the challah cover lifting, and dinner guests kvelling at the beauty of the loaves you created.

Whole Wheat Challah (adapted)

2 envelopes (2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
½ cup honey
1 ¾ cup hot tap water
¾ cup grapeseed oil
3 eggs
4 tsp. sea salt
2 cups whole wheat flour
5-6 cups white flour (bread flour if you have it)
1 egg for basting

In a large mixing bowl or electric mixer, combine yeast and honey. Mix in the hot water and stir with a wire whisk. It should form bubbles. Let stand for a few minutes, then add the oil, eggs, and salt, and whisk together. Add flour 1 cup at a time, switching from the whisk to a wooden utensil when the dough gets thicker (or switching from whisk to paddle if you’re using an electric mixer). Turn the dough out on a flat surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding more flour if the dough is very sticky. When you’re finished kneading, the dough should be smooth and elastic and should bounce back when poked.

Oil a new (or cleaned) bowl, put the dough in, and flip it over once to coat it with oil so it can rise easily. Cover with a cotton towel and let rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours. Braid the dough, put it on your baking sheet, then let rise again for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350. Baste well with egg (use just the yolk if you want the challah extra shiny and golden), cover with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes (time depends on your oven and on the size of your challot). Yields three small or two large challot.

Some other helpful resources:
-Maggi Glezer’s book A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World is a fantastic resource, full of recipes, techniques, and beautiful stories.
-If you can’t get a hold of the book, check out Maggi’s instructional video on braiding a six-stranded braid. It’s not as complex as the video makes it out to be, she is just extra thorough.
-To stuff challah with apples, follow a similar technique to the one used here. Use the same challah recipe but after the first rise, roll out your dough into a rectangle, fill down the center with peeled and chopped apples tossed with cinnamon, cut the sides and fold over, forming a braid.

Coming up in future installments: bread baking as a spiritual practice, weaning off gluten but staying a passionate baker, other bread recipes. And more!


One comment

  1. Thank you for this. I made your challah today, and it is lovely. The house smells like bread, and I have food that connects me to you, and my family has food made with love.

    I’ve been making all the household bread for the last month, although this was my first move away from the 24 hour no kneed bread. Thank you.

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