Challah Challah Challah

In a continuing effort to find applications for eggs, I recently dug out an oldie but a goodie: Challah (pronounced hall-ah). Challah is traditional Jewish egg bread eaten on Sabbath and certain holidays, including Rosh Hashana. According to legend, Challah was one form of manna (food provided by God), which fell from heaven to the Israelites as they wandered the desert.

I cannot confirm or deny any part of this legend, but I can say that Challah is damn good bread. A large number of eggs in the dough, usually 5 or 6, lends richness to this bread. Most recipes call for sugar or honey, which give a gentle sweetness. The top is brushed with more eggs, or honey on special occasions, which renders the loaf shimmering golden brown. The loaf itself is braided which not only makes for spectacular presentation, but also creates long sinews of bread that can be torn apart and eaten out of hand. Sometimes raisins are added to the dough or sesame seeds sprinkled over the top; these add texture and interesting variations to the flavor. However you take it, it’s delicious.

My first attempt at making Challah was back in 2001. I was buying Challah at the Del Mar farmers’ market on Saturdays. I once lamented to the vendor that the Challah was often sold out by the time I arrived at market. He told me it always goes quickly because it is so good. I then had the audacity to suggest that he make a bit more since it was so popular. Almost offended, he replied, “Well, it’s a lot of work.” That’s when I decided to try my hand at it.

Coincidentally around that time the New York Times printed a Challah recipe in the food section. The recipe made two loaves and called for a whopping 1 ½ cups of vegetable oil. The resulting dough was oily and dense. The bread came out uber-rich. Despite being heavy, it was good bread. A few weeks later the Times published a correction; the recipe should have only ½ cup of oil. I made the corrected recipe and found it lighter and airier, but after the first recipe, not quite rich enough. For years that was the recipe I used and I came to love it. It calls for ½ cup of sugar (for two loaves), which makes quite a sweet bread.

This time I tried something new. I recently picked up a copy of Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day. This is a revolutionary book on bread and baking, and it is worth checking out if you ever do either. Baking has remained virtually unchanged since its invention, despite advances in technology (refrigerators and mixers), knowledge of yeast biology, and understanding of the basic principles of gluten and fiber. It turns out that kneading is only one way to form the long strands of gluten needed for excellent bread. An over-hydrated dough, slowly fermenting in the fridge, will create those bonds on its own. The slow fermentation time lets the yeast develop flavors in the dough that fast bread can never have. Aged dough also achieves a tenderness that promotes the creamy interior of good bread.

Reinhart changes everything by implementing classic recipes based on all this new information. His book uses techniques like over-hydrating, under kneading, and aging the dough in the fridge. The result is a set of recipes that require less work and kneading, a bit more patience, and yields some really great bread.

Reinhart’s Challah recipe (for 2 loaves) calls for egg yolks instead of whole eggs. He argues that while egg white gives (desireable) protein, it also dries the bread out. His suggested variation is to use some whites and reduce the water by 2 tbsp for each one added. I modified Reinhart’s Challah recipe slightly, based mostly on the ingredients I had available:
2 ¼ cups warm water
1 ½ tbsp yeast
10 egg yolks
5 tbsp olive oil
4 ½ tbsp honey
8 cups flour
2 ½ tsp salt
1 whole beaten egg for the wash

The recipes in Artisan Breads typically follow a variation of the following process. Specific to the Challah, proceed thusly:
1) add all ingredients to a mixer
2) mix with the paddle attachment for 2 minutes on low
3) rest the dough for 5 minutes
4) mix with the dough hook for 4 minutes on medium
5) turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few minutes until tacky but not sticky
6) divide in 2 and refrigerate for 1-4 days

On baking day there is another multi-step process
1) remove dough from fridge and let rest 2 hours
2) form loaf
3) let rise another hour or two
4) bake

Although there are a lot of steps, each one requires very little effort from the baker. In most cases patience and time is all that is required. The one tricky part with Challah is the braiding. Divide the dough into 5 equal pieces and roll them out into 16-18” snakes. The best way is to roll each of the five pieces to 6-8″, then roll them out to 12-14″, finally 16-18″; letting them rest in between each step. This helps keep them from springing back so readily.

Next pinch the 5 snakes together at one end. Number them (in your mind) 1-5, reading from left to right. Braid them according the sequence 1 over 3, 2 over 3, 5 over 2 (resetting the 1-5 numbering after each move). Brush the whole loaf with egg wash and let rise 1-2 hours then bake 30-40 minutes at 350 F, rotating once at 15 minutes. Test doneness by tapping the bottom; it should sound hollow when finished.

You can make one loaf right away and leave the other half of the dough in the fridge to be made in a few days. This bread has a mellow sweetness, a rich flavor, and an awesome stringy texture. Out of the oven it tastes good, but somehow it’s even better the next day. I can eat it straight but toasted with peanut butter it’s great, and it’s a brilliant choice for French toast.

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