olive oil and orange challah

When I was growing up, there were no set Rosh Hashanah traditions, and while we’ve certainly sat down for a festive meal and did the obligatory apples and honey on the Jewish New Year, we didn’t have a traditional dinner. We’ve not passed on recipes of family brisket, or apple spice cake (now remedied), and certainly of challah.

I became so singularly focused on getting challah right, I wound up testing enough batches to lose count. I tried so many recipes; many proclaiming to be “the” challah. But, nothing made me leap out of my seat. There were versions that were too doughy, too heavy, too chewy, too dry. I wanted a light and moist crumb; I wanted faintly sweetness in the dough; I wanted a particular pull and resistance when I chewed. I knew this could be possible. I just didn’t know how to get there.

I played around with liquids: the amounts, the types; the eggs and egg yolks; the oils; the sugars. Inspired by Melissa Clark’s focaccia, I even made a rosemary one, studded with concord grapes.

And after all my baking adventures, it was Melissa to save my challah-baking day. Upon hearing stories of my continuous dissatisfaction with challah loaves emerging out of my oven, she dug up a gem of a recipe for me from one of her baking books (I think it was a bread machine book of sorts).

The recipe was straightforward, except it used fresh-squeezed orange juice in place of water to activate the yeast. Yeast needs a little sugar to start growing, and orange juice is loaded with sugar, so it’s like a built-in activating bath for yeast to start doing its fermenting thing.

Because the recipe was made for a bread machine, I had to adjust it for a handmade version. Having, by then, baked a dozen braided loafs, that was the easy part. But that got me started on thinking about pounds of flour I’d used in testing the recipe, which made me reach for my trusty calculator (nerd!) and do some basic number-crunching. Fifteen pounds. Fifteen pounds, people. Doesn’t that just make your pulse quicken? That’s almost how much flour I used in testing the challah recipe. [King Arthur flour – you’re welcome for my financial contribution – I’m glad to support you any chance I get.]

To be more succinct in sharing what I learned in this whole process, which by the way, was way fun, I’ve compiled a numbered list for you all. Here are my tips that I’ve learned in my quest for the perfect challah.

I prefer using honey (or maple syrup) to sugar. Not only does it add extra moisture to my bread, but it imparts a lovely note to the dough. Plus, honey on Rosh Hashanah is symbolic.

Orange juice or apple cider (if you want to continue the honey + apples theme) is better than water. You get your liquid, your sugar, and some added flavor.

Oil: Vegetable oil, generally used in making challah, is fine—and produces neutral-tasting bread. I prefer olive oil and love the slightly herbal note it imparts to my bread.

If using raisins: Make sure the raisins are plump and not desiccated, if using.

Mixer versus kneading by hand: I prefer to knead by hand as I find it meditative and relaxing, and you get a good idea for what the dough should feel like and when it’s ready to be left alone.

The 3 rises: If you can give your bread an overnight 2nd rise in the refrigerator, your bread will have more flavor, thanks to cold, slow fermentation that allows for the notes to develop. If you’ve limited fridge space and are busy, just do the rises on the countertop.

3 egg washes are key for the prettiest challah: First time right after you braid your loaf, then midway through the third rise, and once more right before baking.

Happy baking!

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