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!

Challah

What makes this challah different from the others? For one, it uses orange or apple juice or cider instead of water to bloom the yeast. In place of sugar, honey or maple syrup provide sweetness and moisture. Olive oil imparts a flavorful, herbaceous note to the bread — you can use a neutral oil, too, but the flavor of the former is truly something special. The focus on egg yolks, rather than eggs, ensures a tender, chewy crumb. And three coats of the egg wash ensure you get the most beautiful-looking challah, burnished and lacquered—as if photoshopped. Keep in mind that ounces for the yeast (below) are for weight and not volume. If using instant yeast, you can mix the ingredients together in the order listed without having to wait for the yeast to bloom.

makes 1 loaf (this recipe is easily doubled)

1/2 cup (120 ml/125 grams) fresh orange juice or unfiltered apple cider, room temperature or lukewarm
1 packet (1/4 ounce/7.5 grams) active dry yeast
1/3 cup (80 ml/70 grams) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl and dough
2 large eggs, at room temperature, divided
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup (80 ml/106 grams) mild honey
1 teaspoon (4 grams) kosher salt, plus a pinch for the egg wash
4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading the dough (you can also use 2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour and 2 cups (250 grams) bread flour)
1/3 cup (50 grams) golden raisins (optional)
White sesame seeds, for decorating (optional)

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the orange juice or apple cider and 1/4 cup (60 ml/62 grams) lukewarm water. Sprinkle the yeast over on top and let stand for about 5 minutes – the yeast will get frothy. If any odd bits of the yeast are not dissolved by then, stir the mixture with a fork to combine.

Using a wooden spoon, whisk the oil into the yeast mixture. Then, whisk in 1 egg, the egg yolks, one at a time, honey, and salt until everything thoroughly incorporated.

Add the flour and mix, using a large spoon, until the dough starts to come together in a shaggy, sticky mass. Knead the dough by hand until it becomes a sticky, singular lump. Continue to knead until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky (but not tacky), 8 to 10 minutes. (Alternatively, if using a stand mixer, lock the mixer bowl in position and knead the dough using a dough hook until a soft, pliable and tacky (not sticky) dough comes together, about 5 minutes.) The dough should be smooth, elastic, and soft. If your dough is elastic and somewhat tough, you’ve added too much flour; not the end of the world, but make a note for next time to tread more carefully with adding more flour. Depending on how humid it is, how hot, and other variables,  you may need to add more flour.

Using a bowl scraper, transfer the dough to a clean counter or a cutting board, and wash the bowl, then dry it thoroughly. Lightly oil the inside of the bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour in a warm place, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Using your knuckles, press down (don’t punch) the dough, cover, and let rise another 30 minutes. (You can also, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a large plate for 12 to 18 hours – and let the second rise happen slowly there. Slow, cold fermentation will 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 (I like to weigh mine to make they’re fairly equal). 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.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water and a tiny pinch of salt. Brush the loaf all over with the egg wash and let the loaf to rise, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, brushing the loaf midway through the rise with the egg wash.

While the loaf is rising for the third and last time, 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 and sprinkle the sesame seeds on top, if using.

Bake the challah, 27 to 35 minutes, until 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. As you probably already know, it makes excellent French toast.)

46 Comments

  • Lena

    Yay!!! I am so excited to try this, I have been making challah for a while now but I still havent found that sweet spot … they always come out fine but usually they taste like giant bagels instead of the soft light challah magic I am looking for. Can’t wait to try it!

  • Molly

    The orange juice is reminding me of an apple cake recipe I enjoy — I think it’s from Joan Nathan — which includes both oj and vegetable oil. At least for that recipe, I think those two ingredients are used because they are both parve and add a sweetness that otherwise would require dairy products, like milk and butter.

    Your challah is absolutely gorgeous, but I know I’m not going to shake that rosemary and concord grape idea. It just sounds so good!

  • Radish

    Molly – I’ll play with it some more down the road (rosemary and concord grapes, which btw, are such a pain to pit!) – but my one bit of advice, if you do go down that path – go really light on rosemary :) and I think i would roast the grapes first – to dry them out a bit. Makes sense?

  • Molly

    That makes perfect sense to me. I can almost see a smooshy mess of grapes on my counter post-seeding for this recipe if I didn’t roast. That must be why there are so many sorbet and jam recipes for those darn grapes! Good call on going light on the rosemary; it’s a nice herb which people tend to go overboard on. Right now, I’m leaning towards a pie with my grapes. The recipe I have in mind calls for my trusty food mill, which takes the annoyance out of the process, but makes the fruit into a pulp. Looking forward to reading about your future challah discoveries.

  • Radish

    Molly – I would buy a food mill this second, if only we didn’t register for it, and now I must exercise patience. Le sigh.

  • Hannah

    What an amazing list of tips! Thank you you for sharing. I love your OJ inspiration and will also be trying your idea for apple cider when I bake challah this week for Rosh Hashanah.

    Wishing you a sweet New Year!

  • Gretchen @ flowercityfoodie.com

    I adore this sentence: “But orange juice is loaded with sugar, so it’s like a built in activating bath for yeast to start doing its yeasty thing.” I’ve got to share this with my sister (she has a MS in Microbiology)–she’ll love this.

  • EB

    I have a Jewish friend that went on the same challah war-path recently. Let me just say that challah-fails are still 9x tastier than most other bread fails. Nicely done on your gorgeous recipe!

    Happy New Year!

  • Carrie

    Hey! Love your blog. Just wanted to let you know that I believe “on the heels of” means “immediately following,” not “preceding.” :)

  • Radish

    Carrie – thank you for pointing that out. I meant “EVE” not “HEELS”. This is what happens when only 1 set of eyes proof-reads. Thank you!

  • Tamara

    I found your blog a few weeks ago and just wanted to say hello ~ this recipe looks fabulous! I’ve done a few batches of challah already for rosh hashanah (flour count for me: 10 pounds so far!) and my recipe is fine but I’ve been looking for something a bit different. I will bookmark this for next time!

    Shana tova to you!
    Tamara

  • Radish

    Tamara – thanks for saying hi! Hi back! Shana Tovah! Here’s to pounds of flour in search of good bread!

  • Laura

    I made this and it turned out super great! I ended up using tangerines for the juice instead of orange and it was aromatic and tasty. The best challah my parents had ever had!
    Thank you and it was so inspiring to begin with, which was one impetus to make it!
    <3

  • Radish

    Laura – so so glad you’re happy with it. Yes, tangerine juice is wonderful too – and so aromatic! Happy New Year to you and your family.

  • Deena

    You speak the truth — this really was the best challah I’ve made. I omitted the raisins, and shafted it on the final rise because I was in a rush, but other than that followed the recipe. Thanks for such a delicious taste of tradition for the New Year!

  • Tamara

    Can I ask, re: the round braid: do you just literally braid the dough in three and just simply twist it around to make it round? Is it that easy? I’ve done long braids, and I make it in a round coil for rosh hashanah, but I’ve never done a round braid. It looks so pretty.

  • Tamara

    Thank you! And I’m sure you read it already, but I saw Deb at Smitten Kitchen posted a weaving method that looks kind of doable too…we shall see. :)

  • Radish

    Tamara – I did see it. I actually had learned that method 2 nights before Deb’s post went up from a friend. Love that method.

  • addy moss

    I also wear yoga pants while cooking but unfortunately i cant cook like you.Recently i started reading your posts and my cooking improved slightly.I hope to do better with this Challah.

  • Radish

    Addy – you will soon! Thank you for reading, and I’m glad my recipes are helping along – that is the whole point :)

  • Megan Gordon

    I’ve never baked challah and always wanted to….not sure what my excuse is. My dad’s side of the family is Jewish, and my grandmother always had it around but she bought it. Maybe in her honor, I’ll tackle this recipe. Thanks for the inspiration, Olga!

  • Susan Winter

    I am definitely going to try this recipe. I have heard Challah bread is a good base for bread pudding and I am having a hard time finding a good one in my area to purchase.

  • Nancy

    Sorry to only just get on this train about 5 years later but I have been searching and searching for a great challah recipe, I stumbled upon this one about a month ago and I love it! Just wanted to say thanks!

  • Olga @ MangoTomato

    Success!! I’m actually eating the leftover challah for breakfast with white fish salad as I’m typing this!!!
    I think the challah is even better the second day.
    Thanks for such a great recipe and all your instagram help ;)

  • Susan Oher

    L’Shana Tova! Thanks so much for the Challah recipe.
    I made this for our holiday dinner and did the 12 hour ride in the refrigerator and then about 70 minutes for the 3rd rise. It seemed fine when I took it out of the oven but the next morning it had deflated and was dense and chewy in the middle. Any thoughts?
    Thanks!

  • olga

    Susan – apologies for late reply. Not sure what might have caused this as it has never happened to me. Have you tried it again? And did you encounter same results?

  • Susan H

    After scouring the web in search of the perfect olive oil and honey challah, I felt confident in your recipe after reading your post. After baking it, I’ll confidently declare that YOURS is “the” challah recipe yielding the ideal flavor, texture, and a beautifully finished loaf. Admittedly I had to proof the yeast three times because I interpreted “one packet” of yeast as one packet within a three-pack. After two attempts of proofing the yeast without seeing fermentation, I re-read the recipe and realized that the weights referred to an entire three-pack of yeast. I’m new to yeast breads and am sharing this for others who might have been confused. Fortunately, despite limited availability of yeast during the pandemic, I’d stocked up when I saw it on display at my supermarket. Anyway, I made your recipe (using unfiltered apple juice and with the second rise overnight in the fridge) for my son’s wedding yesterday and this will be the recipe I’ll come back to. Thanks for all your trials and errors (and 15 pounds of flour!) on behalf of your followers.

Leave a Comment