This braided loaf, golden and tender from eggs and oil, is steeped in tradition and symbolism. To set it apart from the ordinary weekday loaf of whole wheat bread, it is made with white flour, sugar or honey for sweetness, and oil and eggs to symbolize richness of spirit. Traditionally, challah was baked on Friday, in advance of the admonition that Saturday be a day of rest where no work of any kind was allowed. Today it is baked and eaten any day of the week.
The term challah means “portion,” and biblical law directed that a small piece of dough or bread be set aside as a gift for the Jewish rabbis, who had no income of their own.
This recipe makes a large, spectacular, 4-braided loaf. You begin by making a “sponge,” a mixture of flour, yeast, and water, that results in the production of more yeast cells and begins the development of the bread’s flavor. The resulting bread is moist and tender and is delicious plain or spread with butter. Challah makes excellent sandwiches, toast, and when a day or two old, sensational French toast. Follow the step-by-step photos for the braiding. Here’s an excellent video clearly illustrating how to braid a 4-stranded challah:
Note on measuring flour: Dip dry measuring cup into flour container, fill the cup to overflowing, and sweep off the excess with a straight edge to level the contents of the cup. Don’t shake or bang the cup. One cup of flour measured this way weighs 5 ounces (140 grams).
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour or a combination
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) rapid-rise (instant) yeast
¼ cup hot water (125 to 130 degrees)
4 cups (20 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour or a combination
2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs beaten with 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
6 tablespoons vegetable oil (safflower, olive, peanut, or a combination)
½ cup tepid water, plus more as needed
1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds, optional
For the sponge, stir together the ½ cup flour and yeast in the large bowl of an electric stand mixer or a large mixing bowl. Add the ¼ cup hot water and stir well with a wooden spoon to make a smooth sticky mass of dough.
If using a stand mixer, attach the dough hook and knead the dough on medium-low speed for 4 to 5 minutes to make a smooth, elastic, supple, non-sticky dough. Dough should not be firm or dry, slightly soft is best. If necessary, adjust the consistency of the dough with small additions of water. Sometimes I need to add 2 or 3 tablespoons more water, depending on humidity and dryness of my flour. Remove the dough from the mixer and knead for a minute or so on an unfloured surface. Add additional flour only if the dough is sticky and only enough to make it manageable. Shape the dough into a ball.
If making the dough by hand, knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together into one coherent lump. Then knead the dough for about 5 minutes on your work surface until it is smooth, elastic, supple, and not sticky. Add additional flour if the dough is sticky, but only enough to make the dough manageable.
Wash and dry the mixing bowl and coat it with cooking spray or brush it lightly with oil. Add the dough and turn to coat both sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at a cool room temperature (65 degrees is ideal) until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Transfer the risen dough to an unfloured surface and pat it gently to remove large bubbles.
With a sharp knife, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces about 10 ounces each and shape into balls.
Cover the balls of dough with a kitchen towel and let them relax for about 15 minutes. Roll each ball into an even rope about 20 inches long. Move the dough back and forth under your hands, separating your hands as you extend the dough. Use gentle pressure. This is a very responsive dough and is a joy to handle. If the dough seems at all sticky, dust it very lightly with flour. If the dough resists being stretched, set it aside covered with a towel for a few minutes to relax the gluten. Once you have four long ropes, you’re ready to braid the challah.
Align the ropes vertically in front of you and give yourself plenty of working room. Join the ends of the ropes farthest from you, pinching them firmly together. The ropes will radiate towards you from their junction.
Arrange the strands well apart so that you can clearly see 4 strands. Now, number the strands from the left, moving rightward. Take strand 1 and lift it over strand 2. Then take strand 3 and lift it leftward all the way over strands 1 and 2. That’s the pattern you will repeat alternating right with left until you complete the braiding. Here’s a partially braided challah.
When I discovered the YouTube video above, I’d pause it after every move, rush into the kitchen across the hall from my study, perform the maneuver I’d just seen, and repeat going to my computer, then the kitchen, until I’d shaped the loaf.
Place the loaf diagonally on the prepared baking sheet.
Coat the loaf lightly with cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the loaf rise until puffed and slightly more than doubled in size, about 2 hours or so at a cool room temperature or about 45 minutes in a warm place (85 degrees).
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat to 325 degrees in time for baking. Discard the plastic wrap and carefully brush the challah with the beaten egg making sure to paint all surfaces. Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if using, and place the pan in the oven. Bake 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Then raise the temperature to 350 degrees and bake until the challah is well-browned and cooked through, another 10 to 15 minutes. The challah is done when the probe of an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers between 195 and 200 degrees. Another way to test for doneness is to simply turn the loaf over gently with oven mitts and rap the bottom with your knuckles. You should hear a hollow sound. The baked bread is about triple the size of the unrisen loaf.
Set the challah on a wire cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature. It’s customary to tear hunks of challah off the loaf, but it’s also perfectly okay to cut the bread with a serrated knife. Freshly baked challah is just fantastic spread with butter.