I have to hand it to my mother–she has, without fail, baked challah every Friday for years now. She took over after my Bubby–my grandmother–passed away. The entire family looks forward to her homemade bread, which are shaped into beautiful round boules of egg bread, often sprinkled with sesame seeds or dotted with sweet raisins inside. Usually there are not one, but two challahs on the table. We say the blessings over the candles, then the wine and finish with the bread. The loaf is sliced, passed around the table to the delight of guests big and small. It tastes delicious on its own, or as is often the case, used to dip into a bowl of piping hot chicken soup. If there are any leftovers, they make great french toast the next morning, or a hearty PB & J sandwich.
Challah is meant to be a ceremonial bread used for special occasions like the Sabbath (every Friday night for Jews) or weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. It is often braided, washed with egg and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds.
I looked up the origin of the bread on Wikipedia and discovered that the name refers to the act of separating a portion of the dough for “payment” or taxation to the high priests, who were known as the Kohens (the surname Cohen is the modern name for the descendants of these priests), before the dough was braided.
Whatever the reason was back in biblical times, challah remains a staple for Jewish households. The act of making challah, I find, is very comforting. Measuring, mixing and especially kneading the bread are a great way to stay in the present. It’s almost a form of meditation.
The recipe I am using comes from my Mom. She hand wrote it into a book full of recipes and her own illustrations back in 2006. I cherish this book so much and hope that I can write something similar for my three kids, minus the beautiful illustrations–I’ll leave that to her. My one piece of advice: be patient. You can’t rush good bread. Take the time to knead it (or use a food processor to cut the time by 8 minutes), and give it time to rise before you bake it. The smell in the house is heavenly, which is fitting, since challah is made to honour God and all the bounty he/she has provided. This Friday, take time to thank whatever power you believe in is keeping us safe during such uncertain times. I hope this bread brings you the kind of comfort it brings to me and my family.
- 3/4 cup of water
- 1/3 cup of oil
- 2 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 envelope OR 2 1/4 teaspoons of dry activated yeast
- 2 eggs
- 3 cups of flour (plus more for kneading)
- 1 egg for egg wash
- sesame seeds, poppy seeds, raisins, everything seasoning for finishing the bread
Heat the water and oil together, but not boiling (you can do this on the stovetop or in the microwave)
Add sugar and salt to the water and oil
Sprinkle the yeast on top of this mixture and gently stir–set aside
Measure 3 cups of flour into a large bowl
Beat two eggs and pour over flour
Water and yeast mixture should look foamy now; pour this mixture into the bowl with the flour and eggs.
*If you want to put raisins in your challah, now is the time to add them to your dough.
Mix all the ingredients until they come together
Sprinkle flour onto a tea towel
Pour the dough out onto the tea towel and knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, until it is no longer sticky and becomes elastic-y.
*If using a food processor, knead for two minutes in the machine.
Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
While the dough is resting, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
*HINT: if you don’t want the bottom of the bread to burn while baking, double up your baking sheets, or if you have a baking stone, use that!
Next step is to shape the dough: I like to braid it like a hair braid: divide your dough into three even pieces–if you want to be precise, use a kitchen scale. Roll out each piece into a long strand. Press all three strands together at one end and start braiding. When you get to the end, tuck it underneath the braid. Put your challah on your baking sheet and cover it with your tea towel. Leave the challah to rise for approximately 1 hour, or until it is nearly double in size.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees . While it’s heating up beat an egg and add a dash of water to it. Use this for the egg wash on the challah. Sprinkle with the seeds or seasoning of your choice.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes. If you find the exterior of your challah is browning too quickly, you can always tent it with tin foil, or lower the temperature on your oven by 10 or 15 degrees.
You can also check the internal temperature of your challah before removing it with an oven thermometer, which should read 190 degrees.
Remove from oven and cool in the pan covered with a tea towel.