Challah: Braided Loaves of Tradition

Something about Challah is synonymous with Autumn. Perhaps this because warm baked bread is awesome on a nippy fall day, but more likely because our Jewish friends begin celebrating their High Holidays during the season. Challah is basically a brioche. Brioche is sweet bread and is likely what Marie-Antoinette was referring to when she said, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.”

You don’t have to be Jewish to make a Challah. And, there is no rule that the loaves must be braided although the interlaced dough with its egg-wash sheen is surely impressive! You can bake it in small pans to be taken out and eaten with a little butter and jam. You can roll it into little buns to use for sandwiches or you shape it into a loaf to serve at dinner, any day of the week. This bread is extremely versatile, but most importantly it is extremely delicious! 

1 cup warm water 
1 packet (1 tablespoon) yeast
1/3 cup neutral oil ((butter or lard would make the bread non-kosher)
2 eggs 
1 large egg yolk (reserve the white for the egg wash)
1 teaspoon vanilla 
1/3 cup sugar (white or brown) 
4 cups of all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon Kosher salt

Egg wash: reserved egg white beaten with a splash of water

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with a generous pinch of the sugar and stir to combine. Let stand until you see a thin foamy layer across the top, 5 to 10 minutes. If you do not see tiny bubbles forming on top of the water, your yeast has likely expired or your water was too warm, so you’ll have to start over. Pour oil into yeast liquid when you are sure it is active. In a separate bowl, cream together eggs, egg yolk, sugar, and vanilla. 

In the bowl of your stand mixer, add dry ingredients (flour and salt) and whisk to combine. Add egg mixture and roughly mix before adding yeast mixture. Turn your mixer on low to begin blending without sending flour flying all over your kitchen. As the dough comes together, turn the mixer speed up to completely mix and knead.

Fit the mixer with the hook attachment and knead on low speed for 6 to 8 minutes. Alternatively, turn out the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for about 10 minutes. If the dough seems very sticky, add flour a tablespoon at a time until it feels tacky, but no longer like bubblegum. The dough has finished kneading when it is soft, smooth, and holds a ball-shape.

Let the dough rise until doubled. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place somewhere warm. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Divide the dough and roll into ropes. Divide the dough into 3 or 6 equal pieces, depending on the type of braid you'd like to do. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope about 16 inches long. If the ropes shrink as you try to roll them, let them rest for 5 minutes to relax the gluten and then try again.

Braid the dough. Gather the ropes and squeeze them together at the very top. Long loaves of 3-stranded challah are commonly served weekly for Sabbath meals. For a 3-stranded loaf, braid the ropes together like braiding hair or yarn and squeeze the other ends together when complete. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the braided dough on top and sprinkle with a little flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place away from drafts until puffed and pillowy, about 1 hour. At this point, your loaf is fairly long and skinny. 

Celebration rings are traditionally served during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. These loaves are rolled into a circular shape symbolizing the cycle of the year. You can stretch a 3-stranded loaf longer and squeeze the ends together to form a circle. Or, if you are adventurous, you can attempt a 6-stranded loaf. The trick is to remember "over two, under one, over two." Carrying the right-most rope over the two ropes beside it, slipping it under the middle rope, and then carrying it over the last two ropes. Lay the rope down parallel to the other ropes; it is now the furthest-left strand. Repeat this pattern until you reach the end of the loaf. Try to make your braid as tight as possible. Your braid will start listing to the left as you go; it's ok to lift it up and recenter the loaf if you need to. Once you reach the end, squeeze the ends of the ropes together and tuck them under the loaf.

Brush the challah with egg wash about 15 minutes before baking. Be sure to get in the cracks and down the sides of the loaf. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Bake the challah 25 to 30 minutes rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the challah is deeply browned and registers 190°F in the very middle with an instant-read thermometer.

Cool the challah. Let the challah cool on a cooling rack until just barely warm. Slice and eat. Wrap leftover challah tightly in plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 5 days. Use leftovers to make sandwiches, French toast, or our favorite – bread pudding!