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.)

© 2024 Olga Massov