Making challah is good for the soul — as long as it is done in the right spirit. That is to say, without rush or anxiety.
Challah is the traditional bread of the Jewish Sabbath, but you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy making challah. (That reminds me of a famous ad from the 60s, I think, that read, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread.”)
First off, that “ch” in the beginning of the word is pronounced like a throaty kind of “h,”and definitely not like the ch in “chore.”
Take your time, and a sense of peacefulness and calm may infuse the whole process of bread making, shaping, and baking. Allow time for the yeast to do its magic, and enjoy the sensory pleasures of kneading, rolling and braiding the dough, the visual transformation of egg yolk to a golden burnish, the delicious aroma of bread baking in the oven.
When I’m feeling a bit down, baking challah can be a restorative act. It’s kind of a bread meditation, with the finished loaf as an added bonus.
While any bread baking can be meditative, there’s something very heartening and symbolic about the braiding of bread. And when you break off a warm piece of challah (one segment of the braid) to eat, you’ll understand why it’s part of the Sabbath ritual. And why there’s a special prayer of thanks for bread.
For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which we are just celebrating (it’s 5770, by the way) I made a round challah, with raisins in it. That’s also traditional as the spiral-round shape is supposed to signify either a crown (as in crown of the year) or a completed circle of the year.
Raisins are for added sweetness, and you are also supposed to eat apples and honey for a sweet year. I made my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey for a delicious flavor. Some people put apples in the challah, which sounds good.
A couple years ago, I tasted a Rosh Hashanah challah that was filled with chocolate! A bit over the top, perhaps, but New Year’s comes around only once a year — or is that twice?
There’s something very pleasing about making these circles and braids. I learned to make challah from my mother and she learned to knead dough and bake bread from her mama (who also made awesome cinnamon rolls). As far as a formal recipe, with measurements and all, my mother turned to her trusty Jewish cookbook.
Here’s the almost-original recipe, with a few adjustments by me. It doesn’t use as many eggs as some recipes… and of course, there is NO butter! I usually like to sprinkle poppy seeds on top.
- 1 Tablespoon yeast
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2 cups warm water
- 3 large eggs
- ¼ to ½ cup sugar or honey
- ¼ cup oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 to 9 cups flour (white or combination of white and whole wheat)
- optional: poppy or sesame seeds
- Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ½ cup warm water and let rise for 15 minutes
- Combine two of the eggs, oil, honey, salt, and the rest of the water in a large bowl and add the yeast mixture.
- Stir in enough flour to form a soft dough; then turn out on a floured board and continue to work in flour until the dough is no longer sticky.
- Knead, adding flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and satiny, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Put the dough in a large oiled bowl, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. The bowl should have plenty of room so the dough can double in size.
- Let the dough rise until double (two to three hours) at room temperature or put the dough in the refrigerator to rise overnight. If you do the latter, take it out in the morning and give it another hour or two to let it rise more before the next step.
- Punch the dough down, and divide into two for two large loaves.
- For each loaf, divide the dough into four pieces. Roll three of the pieces between your hands to form ropes and braid them into a loaf. Take the fourth piece and divide into three for a little braid, which you’ll place vertically on top of the loaf. (If you don’t feel like doing this, just divide the pieces into three and make a simple braid).
- Place each loaf on an oiled cookie sheet. Beat the third egg in a small bowl and brush each loaf well with egg. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if you wish.
- 10. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while you let the challah rise for half an hour. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a rack before tearing or slicing.
I confess, I really don’t consult the cookbook anymore for challah. I must take after Baba. I am pretty casual about measurements and this dough is quite flexible. More eggs? Less oil? No sweetener? It will work. You can use whole wheat flour too; the more you use, the denser the bread will be– usually about 50 percent is right if you don’t want a very heavy loaf.
Despite what some people say, bread dough is pretty forgiving as long as you’re careful about temperature for the yeast — not too hot and not too cold — and give it plenty of time. Bread is one of the original “slow” foods. If you don’t have so much time all at once, you can put the dough in a covered bowl in the refrigerator and finish the rising and baking the next day — or a few days later.
You could also bake the challah and put it in the freezer to eat later. Sometimes I make a number of mini-challahs (kind of like large rolls) and freeze most of them for later enjoyment. If I do that, I dispense with the top braid (too much trouble) and bake for only 20 minutes or so.
My German grandmother, Oma, remembered how the women made challah in her village of Freudental. All the Jewish women in the village would take their challah dough to the town bakery on Fridays to bake in the big ovens. It must have been a sweet communal event.
A great aspect of the challah dough is that you can also use it to make yeasted pastries, like Baba’s cinnamon rolls or Oma’s plum kuchen. More about that plum kuchen soon!