The answer is: nothing. Nothing. is. better. Perhaps I am overstating, but as general rule, you can’t go wrong if you show up on someone’s doorstep with a freshly baked challah in hand. Challah, the ritual egg bread that is the cornerstone of every Shabbat meal, is also a delicious and impressive bread to make any day of the week. When I started baking bread way back when, I quickly added challah to my repertoire and I find few things are as satisfying to make and eat. There are about a million variants on the recipe, but all call for flour, water, yeast, eggs and some kind of sugar. I have always used the same recipe, published by the inimitable Mollie Katzen, in her book, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Recently, a friend expressed frustration at the results of her challah-making attempts, so we decided a tutorial was in order. When I arrived at her house, she pulled out her copy of the Enchanted Broccoli Forest and – lo and behold – the recipe was completely different from the one I had been using! Apparently, somewhere between the 1982 edition and the 1995 edition, the recipe was radically updated. The earlier version called for less water, more yeast and lots of kneading – no wonder she was frustrated! The newer version is almost the opposite, double the water, half the yeast and less kneading. Go figure. In any case, of the many challah recipes in the world, I am still loyal to this one (available on Mollie Katzen’s website) and it is virtually no-fail if you make it like this:
STEP 1: The recipe says to dissolve one package of yeast (about one scant tablespoon) into 2 1/2 cups of “wrist temperature water”. If you are unclear as to the temperature of your wrist, you can use a thermometer. For yeast to activate, the water should be between 105° and 115°, which is actually warmer than you might think. Too hot, and the yeast will die, too cold and it will just sit there, infuriating you with its indifference. Once the yeast is relaxing in its perfectly calibrated bath, it will want something to eat:
STEP 2: All yeast needs some kind of sugar to activate. Feed your yeast 1/2 cup of honey for this recipe. Mix it in with a wire whisk and then add the rest of the liquid ingredients: 2 room-temperature eggs (I like to beat them a bit before adding them) and 4 T. melted butter or oil. If you want a kosher challah, use oil, but I think the butter adds to the flavor. Just make sure it isn’t too hot when you add it or it may harm the yeast. Last but not least, a tablespoon of salt to help it along.
STEP 3: With your liquid ingredients all mixed together, it is time to add the flour (8-9 cups total), one cup at a time. Use a wooden spoon to stir (otherwise the dough will get caught in the whisk) and thoroughly mix in one cup before adding the next. By about the 6th cup, the dough will start to look like the sticky bread dough it’s meant to be, and you can knead it in the bowl with your hands. While it is still loose, you can pour it onto a floured surface for kneading:
STEP 4: Knead dough for about 5 minutes, adding the last cup or two of flour as you go. Once your dough is firm and not sticky, it will be ready to rise.
STEP 5: After the dough has risen for 1 1/2 hours, it should have doubled in size. To prepare it for braiding, you need to punch it down. This is fun and if you have any kids around, ask them to do it:
STEP 6: Turn the deflated dough onto a floured surface (this is my unnecessary, yet arty photo):
STEP 7: Knead for a few minutes and then cut into two halves. Knead each of those two halves for a few minutes, these will be your loaves. Take each half and divide it into three equal parts to make a basic braid. Roll each piece into a long snake, letting it rest awhile.
STEP 8: Braiding. For this challah, we are doing a simple 3 part braid, but there are a bunch of fancy ways to shape your bread. For better directions on braiding, check out “The Secret of Challah” website (there are also a myriad of YouTube videos on this topic). But suffice it to say that if you know how to braid hair, challah is no different. Normally, I just braid it into a simple loaf, but at Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – the custom is to shape your challah into a round loaf to symbolize the circle of life.
STEP 9: Second Rise and Egg Bath: Once the loaves are braided, place them on a parchment covered baking sheet, cover with a towel and let them rise for another hour or so. During this time, you can preheat your oven to 375°, spacing the two racks to accommodate rising loaves. (note: when I moved into a new apartment, I noticed that my challah seemed dry and a bit burned on the bottom, although I hadn’t altered the recipe. When I finally bought an oven thermometer, I found that my oven is a full 50° hotter than the dial says – so I now set my oven for 325° and wish for a new oven). Once the dough has risen a second time, beat an egg and paint the bread:
STEP 9: Bake! Place your loaves in the oven. Set the timer for 15 minutes. At that point, take the half-baked loaves out and rotate them so the top is now on the bottom. Set the timer for another 20 minutes. The bread is ready when the crust is hard and makes a hollow sound when you tap on it. Take it out of the oven and place it on a cooling rack for at least 30 agonizing minutes while you wait to slice it.
Voilà! Time for the payoff. You have two loaves of warm bread – one to eat and one to give away. Take a slice, dip it in some honey and take a bite. At that moment, there really is nothing better than a freshly baked loaf of challah.