Most people have their favorite recipe. Whether it’s been passed down for generations, found in the back of a well-thumbed (and well-stained) cookbook or received from a friend just last month, challah recipes are not hard to come by.
You have your favorite, and that’s fine. I have a recipe too, but I’m not looking to convert you. I’m just looking to help you make the best challah possible.
Here are some things that doom perspective challah makers:
- Dead yeast: If you’re not sure how long that packet of yeast has been lying around, chuck it. Store your yeast in the fridge, and be very conservative when it comes to sell-by dates. Proof your yeast in warm water with a little sugar before adding your other ingredients. If after 10 minutes, it isn’t bubbly and smelling strongly of yeast, you need to buy a new jar.
- Not enough rising time: Bread can’t be rushed. I know you’re probably really busy, with a load of laundry in and your kids running out the door and you’re late for an appointment – but that doesn’t mean you can stick the challah in the oven early. Let the dough rise in two stages – once after mixing and once after shaping – for 45 minutes to an hour, and longer in the winter.
- Cutting: All that kneading and mixing you’ve been doing is not for waste – you’re developing gluten strands. So don’t negate all your hard work by ripping apart the challah and breaking all those strands. When it comes time to divide the challah for braiding, use a sharp knife or bench scraper to cut the right-sized pieces, resulting in less breakage to your proteins.
- Shaping: Challah is braided, right? Right (mostly). But your pigtail-making techniques are not going to come in handy here: the best looking challahs are based on 4 strands, not 3. This is a helpful guide. And make sure you seal the ends so all your hard work doesn’t unravel in the oven. A good way to accomplish this is to use the sides of your hands to gently saw through the ends of the braided challah about a centimeter from each end. This will effectively seal all the strands together.
Here are a few things you should be doing:
- Flour: Yes, you can make challah with all-purpose flour. But why would you when bread flour is available so easily, and makes a superior product?
- Precision: I’ve baked in cups for a long time. It’s easy. But guess what – so is weighing. And it’s much more accurate. Invest the $20 for a scale – you’ll get precise measurements, you’ll be able to follow recipes down to the last gram, and your taste buds will thank you.
Well, I’ve armed you with the knowledge, and I’ll give you a recipe to get started if you don’t have your own. In weights, of course!
Challah – makes 3 large loaves
320g/11 ounces water
80g/3 ounces sugar
12g/0.5 ounces salt
60g/2 ounces oil
100g/3.5 ounces eggs (approximately 2 large eggs)
800g/28 ounces bread flour
12g/0.5 ounces instant dry yeast
Egg, for brushing
Sesame seeds (optional)
Add the water, sugar, salt, oil and eggs to a large bowl. Top with the flour and yeast. Mix well, in a mixer with a dough hook attachment or with a wooden spoon. Mix on low to moisten all the ingredients, then on medium for about 8 minutes until the dough has completely gathered together and is worked well. By hand, it should take 10 to 12 minutes of kneading, and the dough should spring back when poked.
Remove the dough from the bowl or mixer, on to a lightly floured surface. Dust with flour, cover with a cloth or plastic wrap, and let rest for 45 minutes to an hour. When you poke the dough now, it should hold the indentation.
Using a knife or bench scraper (do not rip by hand), and working on a floured surface, divide the dough in to 3 equal pieces. Take one of those pieces, then cut in to 4 equal pieces.
Working with one piece at a time, flatten it out in to a rectangle, then roll up tightly, pressing to seal, in to a cylinder. Roll out in to a long thing rope. Continue with the remaining pieces.
Press the 4 ropes together at the top to seal, then braid in the following pattern: 4 over 2, 1 over 3, 2 over 3, repeat. The numbers reset after every turn, so there is no keeping track of which piece is which.
After braiding, brush with the egg wash (reserve what is left) and let rise for an additional 30 to 45 minutes. Brush again with the egg, top with sesame seeds if using, then bake on 160 C/320 F for 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool.