Normally, my way of dealing with deadlines is to do a deep dive into the work and disappear in it all together. Sometimes I find myself at 2 p.m. still wearing pajamas.
But since Rosh Hashanah is around the corner, I want to share this challah recipe with you.
I became obsessed [update in 2019: still obsessed] with challah around a month ago. There were no set Rosh Hashanah traditions in my family, and while we’ve certainly sat down for a festive meal in the past and did the obligatory apples and honey (which isn’t just for RH), 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, that I wound up tested so many batches that I lost count. Nothing quite made me leap out of my seat and proclaim that this will be the challah that will be baked in this here household. I found some of the versions too doughy, too heavy, too chewy, too dry. I wanted lightness – I wanted my challah to be faintly sweet, and taste like an eggy cloud – airy and uplifting. I knew, I just knew that this could be possible.
I played around with liquids: the amounts, the types; the eggs and egg yolks; the oils; the sugars. Inspired by Melissa’s focaccia, I even made a rosemary one, studded with concord grapes.
And after all my baking adventures, it was, in the end, Melissa to save my challah-baking day. Upon hearing stories of non-stop defeat in challah world, she pulled out 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. Or rather, by the time you bake a dozen different challahs, it read as straightforward to me. Except it used orange juice in place of water to activate your yeast! Genius if you think about it. Yeast needs a little sugar to start growing, which is why I add a spoonful of honey to my water when I start the yeast. But orange juice is loaded with sugar, so it’s like a built-in activating bath for yeast to start doing its yeasty 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 a must.
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, which is never a bad thing.
Oil: Vegetable oil, generally used in making challah, is fine—and produces neutral-tasting bread. But I’ve yet to find vegetable oil flavor that makes me leap out in jubilation. I choose with olive oil and love the slightly herbal note it imparts to my bread.
Six braids or three? In the end – I went with three.
Yes, the six-braided version will look formidable rising on your baking pan, but the three-braided one looked the same to me upon baking. It is possible, though, that I’m blind. [updated 1/2/19] I have mastered (read: can do) the six-braid method and might do a quick video to on it. It’s much easier than I had previously thought. And if I can do it, so can you!
If using raisins: I used to soak my raisins in the past, but they yielded too much moisture in my bread. Now, I just make sure the raisins are plump and not desiccated. I throw them in the bread and the results are beautiful.
Mixer versus kneading by hand: I prefer to knead by hand girl through and through as I find it meditative and relaxing. You get a really good feel for what the dough should feel like, and when it’s ready to be left alone. But, if you prefer a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, by all means, go ahead.
The three rises: If you can give your bread an overnight 3rd rise in the refrigerator – by all means do it – your bread will be that much tastier the following day when it bakes. For all of us with limited fridge space and crazy unpredictable schedules, just allow for the 3rd rise to be generous – about 45 minutes to an hour.
Egg wash is important – I do it
twice [updated 1/2/19] three times: First time right after I’ve shaped my bread, another time during the rise, and a third, right before I throw it the braided bread in the oven.
makes 1 loaf
1 packet (3/4 oz/7.5 g) active dry yeast
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh orange juice or unfiltered apple cider, room temperature or lukewarm
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1/3 cup (80 ml) mild honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups (500 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading the dough
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
In a large bowl, combine the orange juice or apple cider and 1/4 cup (60 ml) lukewarm water and sprinkle the yeast over it. Let stand 5 minutes – the yeast will get frothy. Stir with a fork.
Using a wooden spoon, whisk the oil into the yeast mixture, then whisk in 1 egg, then both of the yolks, one at a time, honey (or maple syrup), and salt. Stir until everything is well incorporated.
Add the flour (start with about 475 grams and add if the dough is so wet it’s impossible work with with it) and mix using a large spoon until the dough starts to come together in a shaggy, sticky mass. Put the spoon down and knead the dough by hand until it becomes a sticky, singular lump. Sprinkle with more flour and continue knead until the dough is smooth and very slightly sticky (but not tacky), 5 to 10 minutes. [You can also knead the dough on a lightly floured counter, but that just means you have one additional thing to clean. The dough should be smooth, elastic, and soft. If your dough is elastic and somewhat tough, you’ve added too much flour.]
Place the dough onto a place or a cutting board and clean out the mixing bowl, making sure to dry it thoroughly. Oil the bowl, and lightly oil the dough all over. Place the dough inside the bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let rise for 1 hour, in a warm place, or until the dough has doubled inside the bowl. Using your knuckles, press down the dough, cover, and allow to rise another 1/2 hour. [You can also let the second rise occur over 12-18 hour period in the refrigerator. It should give your resulting challah a richer, more complex taste.]
Knead the raisins, if using, into the dough, and divide the dough into 3 or 6 equal parts. Roll out each part into a 12-inch (30.5 cm) long rope, being careful to keep the ropes uniform in girth. Pinch the top of the ropes together and tightly braid them until you reach the end. For a round challah, traditional on Rosh Hashanah, bring the ends together to form a round, braided loaf.
Make an egg glaze, by beating the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the loaf all over and allow the loaf to rise, uncovered, another 45 minutes, brushing once more midway through the rise.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F (191°C) with the rack positioned in the middle. Gently, brush a third coat of the egg wash over the loaf. Bake the challah, 27 to 35 minutes, until it is rich golden brown and burnished. (I check after 25 minutes—with my current oven, my challah takes about 27 minutes.) Remove the challah to a wire rack and let cool until warm or room temperature.
[Though challah is definitely delicious in the following few days, it’s best on the day it is baked.]