Homemade Challah bread symbolizes the holidays
Right out of college, I lived in New York City, near enough to a scattering of friends who always got together on New Year’s Eve. Since most of us lived in cramped studio apartments (some smaller than our former dorm rooms), we typically congregated at the brownstone owned by Susan’s parents. Each of us would bring an adult beverage and some finger food to share.
Although I’ve fallen out of touch as members of our group moved on with their lives, I’ve always remembered Larry’s annual contribution to the menu: homemade challah bread. Because this was something he associated with the holidays and family celebrations, we were the beneficiaries of his baking skills.
Pronounced with a hard-sounding first syllable (kha), this unique bread comes to us from the traditions of 15th century eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. Origins of the twisted or braided designs are not clear. Some historians claim this imitates contemporary loaves of white bread from Slavic and central European countries, while others suggest the shape is a pun on the practice of breaking off a little piece of dough to commemorate Biblical sacrifices and to begin the Sabbath rituals.
The soft dough of challah is enriched with eggs and mixed without milk to keep it suitable for the kosher table. Although it must go through the same two-step rising process as other breads, the dough is softer and more elastic. Once the dough is ready to shape, it is separated into sections, which are then rolled into logs about18 inches long.
How many strands to form for the braided loaf can range from the basic three to a more complex 12. The photo shows my preference of four strands, which makes a more attractive braid than only three, without the challenges of additional weaving. The four pieces are lined up next to each other and one end of each strand is pressed together to create a starting point for the braid.
To start, weave the strand on the right through the other three (over, under, over). The process continues with the piece now in the rightmost position, which is woven over, under and over the other three. Repeat these steps until you reach the end of the strands. Press the ends together and tuck them into the dough. You can leave the bread in a loaf-like shape or bring the ends together to form a circle or wreath shape.
For a glossy crust with crunchy interest, brush the entire loaf with an egg wash and then sprinkle generously with sesame or poppy seeds. After the dough spends a half hour in the oven, your kitchen will be filled with the yeasty aromas of homemade bread. Although it’s a good idea to let the loaf rest a few minutes before serving, I’ve never been able to resist tearing off a corner as the challah slides from the pan to the cooling rack.
I’ve included two recipes for you to try; one is a basic challah and the other is a richer version that includes raisins and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar. Although the process appears lengthy, much of the time is spent waiting for the dough to rise, and the actual work steps are not difficult.
As we look forward to celebrating the new year with friends and family, what better tradition to embrace than breaking bread together?
1 T active dry yeast
2 T sugar
1 1/2 C warm water, divided
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/2 C honey
3 1/2 C whole wheat flour
1 t salt
2 1/2 C white flour
1/2 t oil
1 t water
1 t sesame seeds
Combine yeast, sugar and 1 C warm water in a small bowl; set aside to proof (yeast should bubble and foam). In a large mixing bowl, combine 1/2 C warm water, vegetable oil and honey, mixing until smooth. Add eggs, whisking to incorporate. Add yeast mixture and stir until smooth. Sift in whole wheat flour, one cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula to form a stiff dough.
Add salt and 1 1/2 C white flour, continuing to stir the dough. Mound 1 C white flour on a flat surface and place ball of dough on top. Knead for about 10 minutes to blend flour into dough; texture should be smooth and no longer sticky. Pour 1/2 t oil in a large bowl and roll ball of dough in the oil until covered on all surfaces. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for 1 1/2 hours. When dough has doubled in size, punch down and re-cover with plastic wrap; allow to rise another 30 minutes. Separate dough in half to make 2 loaves. For each loaf, form dough into four 18-inch-long rolled strands. Place four strands on a parchment-lined baking sheet and pinch together at one end. Braid the dough and pinch ends together; repeat for the other loaf. Cover with a dishcloth and allow to rise for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 F. Whisk together egg and water. Brush the tops of each loaf with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden and glossy, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Raisin Challah Bread
1 t sugar
1 1/2 C warm water
2 packages instant yeast
2 t salt
1/4 C honey
1/3 C sugar
1/2 C melted butter
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
7 to 8 C flour
1 1/4 C raisins
1 egg yolk
1 T water
2 T cinnamon sugar
Combine the sugar and warm water in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle in yeast and stir well. Allow to froth and foam for about 10 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in 2 C flour and salt. Add honey, sugar, melted butter, eggs and egg yolks; stir until blended. Add 5 C flour, one cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding remaining 1 C flour, if necessary. Coat the inside of a large bowl with shortening or butter. Roll the dough into a ball and place in the bowl, turning to coat with shortening on all surfaces. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and set in warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough, transfer to work surface and knead in raisins. Return dough to bowl and allow to rise another 30 minutes.
Divide dough in half and roll each half into a rope about 30 inches long. Hold one end of dough in place and coil dough into a tight spiral, slightly higher in the center. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and allow to rise for another 30 minutes. Repeat with other half of dough. Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk together egg yolk and water; brush the top of each loaf with the egg wash. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, if desired. Bake until deep golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving. Yield: 2 loaves.