This might be the worst week to be posting a recipe. From where I sit in the living room, I look over to the kitchen – a kitchen I’ll approach only tonight to make an easy weeknight dinner. We’ll feast on shrimp and roasted broccoli night per Andrew’s request. It’s a regular in our house.
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 two o’clock in the afternoon still wearing my pajamas while typing furiously. The look of me, yet-to-shower, hair in a messy bun, glasses on the tip of my nose – is definitely not bringing sexy back, that’s for sure. But I get work done and by the time Andrew gets home – I somewhat try to pull it together, and by that I mean, yoga pants are my best friend right now.
But since Rosh Hashanah is around the corner, I had to share this with you. There’s challah at stake. And challah is not a trifling matter.
I got obsessed (and I mean obsessed) with getting challah right around a month ago. I got to thinking that there were no set culinary Rosh Hashanah traditions in my family. While we’ve certainly sat down for a festive meal in the past and did the obligatory apples and honey (note to self: that snack isn’t just for RH!), we didn’t have a traditional meal. There was no family brisket, no apple spice cake (now remedied), and certainly no challah.
And on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I got completely obsessed with perfecting a recipe for challah. I 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. While the idea sounded genius in my head, the challah turned out rather disappointing. Undaunted, I moved on, to other recipes and versions.
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 really, 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.
1. I prefer using honey to sugar. Not only does it add extra moisture to my bread, but it imparts a lovely honey note to the dough. Plus, honey on Rosh Hashana is kind of a must.
2. Orange juice is genius genius genius. Next version I bake, I’m going to try apple cider – the unfiltered good stuff I get from my local apple farmer. Apples and honey? Sign me up.
3. Vegetable oil, generally used in making challah, makes me yawn. I’ve yet to find vegetable oil that makes me leap out in jubilation. I went with olive oil and loved the slightly herbal note it imparted to my bread.
4. 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.
5. Baking stone (pizza stone) or a baking sheet? I found that I couldn’t quite catch the challah at the right baking time on the pizza stone. It managed to get really hot. I prefer to use those Chicago Metallic jellyroll pans – they do lovely things for my bread. If you do go with a pizza stone, do adjust your baking time accordingly.
6. My oven runs HOT! So my baking time is adjusted for that. For all you normal folks out there, I suggest increasing the baking time by 5 minutes and then checking to see how you’re doing. You’re looking for a rich, amber golden crust.
7. I soaked my raisins in the past, but they yielded too much moisture for my bread. Now I just make sure my raisins are plump and haven’t dried out. I throw them in the bread and the results are beautiful.
8. Mixer versus kneading by hand. I am a knead-by-hand girl through and through. It’s strangely meditative and relaxing. You simply cannot mess it up and it gives you a really good feel for what the dough should feel like and when it’s ready to be braided. By the way, no matter how many instructions I give you, the only way to truly know is to make a few loaves.
9. 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.
10. Egg wash is important – I do it twice. First time right after I’ve shaped my bread and gave it an egg wash before the 3rd rise. And the second egg wash comes right before you stick your challah in the oven.
So at the risk of leaving you all here in an awkward fashion – gotta run! Work beckons and those deadlines just refuse to budge! Happy baking!
I hope that everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah has a beautiful, sweet holiday. And those who don’t – go ahead and make this challah anyway, it’s delicious. And you don’t have to take my word for it – the winning batch I shared with Melissa – she thought it was excellent too!
1 packet (3/4 oz/7.5 g) active dry yeast
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh orange juice or unfiltered apple cider, warmed to lukewarm
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at 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)
1. In a large bowl, combine the orange juice 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.
2. Whisk the oil into the yeast mixture, then whisk in 1 egg, then both of the yolks, one at a time, honey, and salt. Stir until everything is well incorporated.
3. Add the flour 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 stick (but not tacky), 5-10 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.]
4. 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 (remember to oil the bottom, too). 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.]
5. Knead the raisins, if using, into the dough, and divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Roll out each part into a 12-inch 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.
6. 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 another 45 minutes, uncovered. While the challah is rising for the 3rd time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F with the rack positioned in the middle. Gently, as not to deflate the dough, brush a second coat of the egg wash over the loaf. Bake challah, until a rich golden brown 35 to 45 minutes (I had to start checking after 25 – mine took 27 minutes). What you’re looking for is a smell of baked bread. You’ll know what I mean the first time around. That will be your first clue to check on your bread. Keep smelling. Once baked, remove to a wire rack an cool completely before serving.
Makes 1 loaf