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.
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.)