Is there any food that reflects the beauty of Judaism more than a freshly baked challah? Jews and non-Jews alike love the flavor and shape of this delicious eggy bread. But challah is so much more than just bread. The tradition of challah is a very spiritual one; for observant Jews, it is a way to directly connect with the spiritual energy of God. In fact, baking challah is considered an important blessing in the Jewish home.
Today, the word challah is used to describe the beautiful loaf of braided bread that appears on Shabbat tables all over the world. In ancient times, challah referred to a small bit of dough that was set aside for the Temple priests as an offering to God:
Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it.
Traditionally, challah is served on Shabbat and holidays. I like to think of challah as a “special occasion” bread because of the time and effort that goes into making it. You can certainly make challah any day of the year, but in my home the process is reserved for Shabbat and the major Jewish holidays (except for Passover, of course, when leavened bread is not allowed). The smell of freshly baked challah ushers in our weekly Shabbat celebration and puts everybody in a mood of gratitude. As blog reader Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill put it—“I love it when I finish making my Shabbat Challah. It smells like Shabbat!”
The ritual associated with separating and blessing the challah is somewhat complex process, dependent on the size of challah you are baking and your level of observance. Customs vary according to Halachic opinion; Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions approach the blessing differently. If you are interested in learning more about the process of separating challah, there are many guides available online… or ask a trusted rabbi!
For me, baking challah is like a meditation. Kneading and rising, kneading again, shaping, braiding and baking—it all takes a lot more time than, say, baking brownies from an instant mix. But smelling the bread baking, then seeing your gloriously braided challah on the dinner table, really makes it all worthwhile. I hope this blog inspires you to try it yourself!
The following recipe is my favorite way to make challah, developed after many attempts to create a “foolproof” challah recipe. It’s a rich, moist, eggy challah sweetened with honey. The multiple risings create a beautiful texture, and the egg wash results in a gorgeous golden crust. Feel free to sprinkle your challah with any of the toppings suggested in the recipe. You also can add raisins or chocolate chips to the dough (adding real chocolate will make it a dairy dish). No matter which way you choose to make it, challah is a delicious way to celebrate Shabbat, or any other holiday.
If you’ve never made challah before, remember to be patient. Baking challah is a simple process, but it does take time and effort. You may need to try it a few times to get a “feel” for the dough. If you follow my instructions exactly, you should be fine—I’ve tried to describe each step specifically. Comment me if you have any questions. For instructions on how to braid your challah, click the following link:
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- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water, divided
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 egg
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup honey
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 2 tsp salt
- 4 1/2 to 6 cups flour
Egg Wash Ingredients
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp cold water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Raisins, chocolate chips (1 ½ cups of either)
- Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt
You will also need
- Large mixing bowl, whisk, kitchen towel, cookie sheet, parchment paper, plastic wrap, pastry brush, timer
- Pour ¼ cup of the lukewarm water (about 110 degrees) into a large mixing bowl. Add 1 packet of Active Dry Yeast and 1 tsp of sugar to the bowl, stir to dissolve. Wait 10 minutes. The yeast should have activated, meaning it will look expanded and foamy. If it doesn’t, your yeast may have expired, which means your bread won’t rise—go buy some fresh yeast!
- Once your yeast has activated, add remaining 1 ¼ cup lukewarm water to the bowl along with the egg, egg yolks, honey, canola oil and salt. Use a whisk to thoroughly blend the ingredients together.
- Begin adding the flour to the bowl by half-cupfuls, stirring with a large spoon each time flour is added. When mixture becomes too thick to stir, use your hands to knead.
- Continue to add flour and knead the dough until it’s smooth, elastic, and not sticky. The amount of flour you will need to achieve this texture varies—only add flour until the dough feels pliable and “right.” If you plan to add raisins or chocolate chips to the challah, incorporate into the dough as you knead.
- Place a saucepan full of water on the stove to boil.
- Meanwhile, remove the dough from your mixing bowl and wash out the bowl. Grease the bowl with canola oil. Push the dough back into the bottom of the bowl, then flip it over so that both sides are slightly moistened by the oil.
- Cover the bowl with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Place the bowl of dough on the middle rack of your oven. Take the saucepan full of boiling water and place it below the rack where your dough sits. Close the oven, but do not turn it on. The pan of hot water will create a warm, moist environment for your dough to rise. Let the dough rise for 1 hour.
- Take the dough bowl out and punch it down several times to remove air pockets. Place it back inside the oven and let it rise for 1 hour longer.
- Take the dough out of the oven. Flour a smooth surface like a cutting board. Punch the dough down into the bowl a few times, then turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Knead for a few minutes, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from feeling sticky.
- Now your dough is ready to braid. If you plan to separate and bless the challah, do it prior to braiding. Click here to learn how to braid challah.
- After you’ve braided your challah, place it on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (this will catch any spills from your egg wash and keep your challah from sticking to the cookie sheet).
- Note: I usually only put a single challah braid on a cookie sheet, since they tend to expand a lot when baking.
- Prepare your egg wash by beating the egg, salt and water till smooth. Use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of the mixture onto the visible surface of your challah. Reserve the leftover egg wash.
- Let the braid rise 30 to 45 minutes longer. You’ll know the dough is ready to bake when you press your finger into the dough and the indentation stays, rather than bouncing back.
- Heat oven to 350 degrees F. The challah needs to bake for about 40 minutes total, but to get the best result the baking should be done in stages. First, set your timer to 20 minutes and put your challah in the oven.
- After 20 minutes, take the challah out of the oven and coat the center of the braid with another thin layer of egg wash. This area tends to expand during baking, exposing areas that will turn white unless they are coated with egg wash.
- Turn the tray around, so the opposite side is facing front, and put the tray back into the oven. Turning the tray helps your challah brown evenly—the back of the oven is usually hotter than the front.
- The challah will need to bake for about 20 minutes longer. For this last part of the baking process, keep an eye on your challah—it may be browning faster than it’s baking. Once the challah is browned to your liking, take the tray out and tent it with foil, then place it back in the oven. Remove the foil for the last 2 minutes of baking time.
- Take the challah out of the oven. At this point your house should smell delicious. You can test the bread for doneness by turning it over and tapping on the bottom of the loaf—if it makes a hollow sound, it’s done. Let challah cool on the baking sheet or a wire cooling rack before serving.
- This recipe will make 1 very large challah, 2 regular challahs, or 24 mini challah rolls. I usually divide the dough in half to make 2 medium challahs, which are more manageable and easier to braid than a large one. Choose what works best for you!