Homemade challah is one of the most nourishing and delicious things you can eat. The rich eggy bread, sweetened with sugar and honey forms a hard shell in the oven that is perfect for scooping up hummus or for dipping in (chicken) soup. Double loaves of heavenly challah are an essential part of any shabbat meal or Jewish holiday celebration: each comprising six strands, together they recall the twelve tribes of Israel and the double portion of manna dropped from the sky before shabbat and festival days following the exodus from Egypt. The braided (or twisted) challah shape seen today is thought to have come from 15th century Ashkenazis who cleverly punned on the mitzvah of separating a portion of the dough (Hafrashat challah) as a gift to the Kohen (Netinat challah); Ukranian Jews developed the round crown shape used for Rosh Hashanah as well as various other shapes during the 1700s. While many different varieties include saffron, raisins, different types of flour or nuts and dried fruits, the traditional recipe contains fine white flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and the all important ingredient: salt. Salt is essential to both to the baking of challah and in its eating. Found in large quantities in the Dead Sea, salt not only connects the Jewish people to their homeland but also symbolises the immortal covenant between themselves and God, providing it with flavour and meaning. As an important part of the blessing over challah, no meal is complete without salt. This recipe uses a lot of eggs and a combination of honey and sugar for different layers of sweetness. While it pairs perfectly with brisket, try not to schlep the whole challah in one sitting – save at least half a loaf for the perfect Sunday Brunch: challah french toast.
Challah (1 large loaf 0r 2 small loaves)
7 g (1 package of yeast)
207 g warm water
50 g sugar, plus a pinch
1 tbl honey
2 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk, plus one more egg yolk for glazing
60 ml vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
7 g sea salt
500 g bread flour
poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the yeast, a pinch of sugar and 100 g of flour. Whisk in the warm water until smooth; let the yeast slurry stand uncovered for 10-15 min or until it begins to ferment or puff up slightly.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (the rest of the flour, sugar, sea salt). Make a well in the middle of the mixture and whisk the wet ingredients into it (2 eggs and egg yolk, vegetable oil, honey). Pour the yeast slurry over the top and, with a wooden spoon, gradually incorporate the flour mixture into the egg and slurry mixture. When it forms a shaggy ball, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and soft (no more than 10 min). Soak the mixing bowl in hot water to both clean it and prepare it for fermenting the dough. Grease the bowl with a bit of vegetable oil.
3. When the dough is ready (smooth and kneads easily without sticking to the work surface), place it in the bowl and cover firmly with plastic wrap. Let it rise in a warm place in the kitchen for 1 hour, then, punch down the dough, re-cover and let it rise again for another hour. After 2 hours the dough should now have fermented (doubled in size) and be ready to be braided
For 1 large (or two small) braided loaf:
Form the dough into 6 (or 12) balls. Placing the round balls one at a time in between your hands, roll into long ropes about 30 cm long and 3.8 cm wide. Place 6 strands parallel to each other on a baking tray and pinch the tops of them together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands; then take the second from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2, then, move the second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided and then tuck the ends underneath.
For a large round challah:
Form the dough into 4 balls. Placing the round dough balls one at a time between your hands, roll into long ropes about 30 cm long and 3.8 cm wide.
4. Beat the remaining egg yolk with a dash of water and brush all over the braided challah. Sprinkle with flour and cover with a damp dish towel; let proof for another hour. Preheat oven to 190 degrees c.
5. Directly before baking, brush again with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds (if using). Bake in the oven on the middle rack for 25-30 min or until golden brown. (tent with foil if browning too fast). Let cool on a rack. Shabbat Shalom!!