Tomorrow is challah-making day. On the one hand, I love challah-making day, because challah-making is one of MY mitzvot, something I, the wife, am supposed to do. It’s another chance for me to perform a mitzvah and pray for people close to me who could use a little help. Plus, I make a yummy challah (if I do say so myself…). They aren’t pretty, but they’re tasty. Seems to happen with all my food. Tastes great, doesn’t look so great. Ah well, in the end, it gets eaten, and we all remember that it was delicious, but we don’t remember what it looked like. Unless I take a picture. The only reason I don’t always look forward to making challah is that it is a lot of work and can be frustrating, depending on how ambitious I want to be.
Also, there was that one time I opened the bag of whole wheat flour and found moths nesting in it… That wasn’t so fun.
I make challah about once every three to four weeks. It’s fairly time-consuming, although a lot of the time spent is just in the waiting for the first and second rises. It really takes about 10 to 15 minutes to make the dough, then, depending on how ambitious I get about braiding, and how many loaves I plan to make, it can take about half an hour to shape the loaves. In between, it rises. Then goes in the oven.
Somehow, I always manage to forget that they will get much bigger while they bake. You’d think that after enough times making challah (which, while I haven’t been doing it for years, I have made my fair share by now), I would remember that. I always think the loaves look so puny on the sheet pans, but then they come out and they’re these massive golden loaves, and I feel rather proud. Also, did I mention that they taste good?
Bread-making tends to be either a completely mystifying process or something incredibly mundane. To me, it was very mysterious to me how one would go about actually MAKING bread, while at the same time remembering that people have been making bread for millennia, so how hard can it really be? Now that I make challah regularly, I see that it’s really a pretty simple process, and only the ingenuity (or lack thereof) of the baker limits the flavors and shapes of the bread when it comes out of the oven.
Challah is just egg bread, not any different in basic makeup than most other kinds of bread. The challah part is not the recipe (of which there are gazillions) or even the shape (though a 3- or 6-braid is most common and most recognizable). The challah is the “separating,” which is performed just before the dough is divided and shaped. You make a dough, using at least five pounds of flour, you let it rise for a while, and then you take a small handful of dough and separate it from the main body of dough while saying a blessing. THAT is the “challah.” You are then supposed to burn that bit of dough so that it becomes inedible. This represents the part of dough that was set aside for the priests during the days of the Temple.
One thing I’ve learned is that bread-making is very forgiving. As long as you have your initial yeast slurry at the right temperature, your dough will rise. How it tastes and its texture is largely up to your balance of sugar and flour and how long you knead it, then how much work you do with the dough before you’re finished shaping it. Finally, how long and at what temperature you bake it matters as well.
Now that I’m confident in my basic technique and in the recipe I use, I’ve been experimenting a bit. My favorite variation so far is adding za’atar to the top of the challah after doing the egg glaze. It smells SOOOO good while it bakes, and it adds just a bit of flavor. Za’atar is an herb and spice blend that is very common in Middle Eastern cooking. There are many variations, but it almost always contains oregano, sesame seeds, thyme, marjoram, and salt. It’s delicious. You should try it. You can get it from a Middle Eastern store, a kosher store, or online.
And, since I’m sure you’re dying to know, HERE is my challah recipe. Well, not MINE, per se, but the one I use:
1 cup warm water (around 110 degrees, or feeling only slightly warm to your wrist)
3 packets of dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp flour
Dissolve the yeast in the water and mix in sugar and flour. Let sit until it foams. (This is called priming the yeast. If it doesn’t foam within 5 to 10 minutes, your water was too cold or too warm and you need to start over. If your yeast isn’t primed, your bread won’t rise, so don’t bother continuing.) Trust me, you’ll know when it foams. It’s quite dramatic.
2-1/2 cups warm water
¾ cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 tbsp salt
12 – 14 cups of (all-purpose) flour (or about 5 pounds)
- Add water, oil, sugar, eggs, and salt to primed yeast mixture and mix well.
- Gradually add the flour. I usually start by adding 3 or 4 cups then mixing it together well with a wooden spoon before adding more. Then I do 2 cups at a time until it gets hard to mix. Then I do ½ to 1 cup at a time and mix by hand.
- As long as it’s sticky, continue adding flour. I’ve found that if I end up with more than about 13 cups of flour, I like to add another ½ cup of sugar to balance the flour. Otherwise it’s not as sweet. Depending on how dry of a day it is, how packed your flour was as you measured it, and many other factors, the exact amount of flour you’ll end up using can vary a lot. Basically, you’ve added enough when it sticks more to itself than to your hands.
- Knead for about 7 to 10 minutes, until dough is springy but not tough. This takes practice to get just the right feel to it. You want to be able to work with it, but you don’t want it to spring back on itself when you try to shape it. (Note: You’re not shaping it in this step, but the kneading is the most important part to get the right texture.) Make sure all the ingredients are mixed well together.
- Oil the top of the dough and cover with a towel. Let rise for approximately 2 hours, or until it’s about doubled in size. It’s best to keep it in a warmish place. It will rise faster and better.
Do this step if you are making challah for the mitzvah and not just for the fun of baking bread (which is a perfectly valid reason to make challah, in my opinion).
Take approximately one ounce of the dough in your hand but don’t pull it away from the dough yet.
Say the following blessing:
Baruch atah hashem elokeinu melech haolam, asher kidishanu bemitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hafrish challah.
Then pull the bit of dough away from the main body of dough and burn it. I usually wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in a hot oven until it’s burned. You shouldn't do this if you are currently cooking other foods in the oven.
Now you’re going to shape the loaves.
Divide the dough into as many pieces as desired. You could make two huge loaves or eight small ones. I recommend doing an even number if you’re going to use them for Shabbos, since you need two whole loaves for Motzi.
Flour your work surface and your hands, and keep some flour handy so you can reapply as needed. From here, you can shape them into whatever shapes please you. I usually go with a simple 3-braid, which is done the same way you’d braid anything else. Divide your dough into three parts, roll each part into a long rope, and braid. It is also traditional to do a 6-braid, which I have yet to master. You can find video on YouTube on how to do a 6-braid, or you can ask your rebbetzin to show you sometime. It’s beautiful when done properly. Do keep in mind that the more you do and re-do your shaping, the more you’re working the dough. After a while, it can get hard to do anything more with, and the texture changes.
Place the loaves on cookie sheets. Keep in mind that they will grow a LOT by the time they’re baked, so leave space. When I do six loaves from this recipe, I do two per sheet and bake them in shifts, since they don’t all fit in my oven.
Leave them to rise for another half-hour to an hour. They’ll get bigger.
Preheat your oven to 350.
Make an egg glaze – take one egg, beat it, and use a brush to glaze the tops of all the loaves. This will make them brown better. One thing that’s fun to do is add a little sugar to the glaze. It further sweetens the challah and makes it a little sparkly. Now is also the time to add other decorations/flavors, such as za’atar, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, etc.
Pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350. Remove when big and browned. The exact timing and placement also varies depending on your oven, so this may take a little experimentation also.
Enjoy the smell of bread baking in your home, and especially enjoy EATING the challah! YUM!
Whole Wheat Variation:
I do NOT recommend making the whole dough with only whole wheat flour. If I want to include whole wheat flour, I do the first 4 or 5 cups of flour as whole wheat and use white for the rest.
Adding additional elements to the dough:
I haven’t tried this yet, but you can add chocolate chips, raisins, nuts, dried cranberries, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Just knead it into the dough before you leave it to rise the first time, then follow the recipe as written.
I hope I’ve managed to demystify challah- and bread-making a bit. And think how cool it is to be making something that Jews have been making for thousands of years!