Challah

Challah fresh from the oven.
Challah fresh from the oven.

Dear sweet husband stopped attending synagogue long ago, but we celebrate Hannukkah as a step family, continuing a long running tradition in his home. If you’ve never partaken in a Hannukkah celebration, it’s a unique holiday tradition. The candle lighting ceremony, especially when sung in the Hebrew language, is quite moving. When our foster kids were with us, they joined in, and we connected the event to their Christian faith.   

Like many holidays, during Hannukkah we spend time together … and eat lots of food. I make challah, and (sometimes) rugelach. The eldest daughter makes latkes using her late Aunt Ruth’s latke recipe. I’m told the sisters of this family had passionate discussions about how to make latkes, and apparently Aunt Ruth’s was agreed on as the most aligned with generations of tradition. 

We even play the dreidl game with a bag of coins that’s been used for decades. (The foster kids liked playing for candy.) What’s dreidl? If you’ve ever played with spinning tops, it’s like that—but with consequences. You put coins in the pot before each turn. On your turn, your spin the dreidl (a top). On each of the dreidl’s four sides are one of four instructive words: Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin, which essentially equate to none, all (take the whole pot), half (take half the pot), or put in (add to the pot). You follow the instruction based on which side lands face up after your spinning top falls. Like many games of chance, it’s mostly luck, but there is some skill involved in making that top spin!

I love this time of year, because it’s typically the only time I make Challah. I am seriously in love with Challah. It’s fun to work with and so very delicious. If you follow the traditional path, you have to roll and cut the dough and braid it. The dough cuts fairly easily using a dough cutter, knife, or even a pizza roller. If you want to make rolls, a roll cutter also works well. It makes tasty dinner rolls.

The braiding possibilities are many. I’m not perfect at braiding, and I have learned not to worry about it. Somehow it works out. Challah is kind of miraculous that way. I even overcooked a few items last year because I didn’t hear my timer go off, and the bread still tasted pretty good!  

This bread is tasty plain, but you can add a variety of ingredients in the dough or add toppings to formed loaves before cooking. I’ve added cinnamon and sugar, nuts, fruits, chocolate chips and more inside the dough. I’ve topped with turbinado sugar, kosher salt, sea salt, and savory seasonings. 

Each time I make this bread I learn something. Small, three-strand braided loaves make great pull apart bread. Shape them like pretzels and top with salt and you’ve got delicious soft pretzels, of a sort. Large, long loaves and round loaves are gorgeous (even if you mess up the braid or the strips are not exactly evenly sized). Wreaths look amazing, both with rolled and twisted dough strips. Smaller loaves shaped like Stars of David also work, but they must be eaten immediately as they do not store well. I once had trouble getting some small spirals to hold shape and ended up with a snail. Fun!

I love to eat this bread plain—in fact, it’s really hard for me to leave the loaves laying about until guests arrive. It’s tasty whether fresh out of the oven, at room temperature or even chilled. It toasts nicely … and is even better as French toast. No matter how you shape it, flavor it, or serve it, everyone seems to love challah. 

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

James Beard

Ingredients

For dough:

1  pkg yeast (2 1/2 tsp / 7 g) 

1/4 C hot water 

1/4 C honey 

1/3 C olive oil 

2 eggs

4 C flour

3/4 C water 

For loaves:

Olive oil 

Egg, whisked

Butter, melted

Prep time: about 5 hours                                                                                         

Yields:  two loaves

Challah at a glance.
Challah at a glance.

Directions

Combine yeast, water and honey and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. The yeast will bubble and rise.  

While waiting for yeast, add olive oil and eggs into mixing bowl. Add yeast and mix well. 

Add flour about 1/2 cup at a time and blend well. 

Add about 3/4 cup water as needed to create desired consistency. Getting the liquid ingredients right is the key to this bread. 

TIP: You want the dough to be pliable for kneading. If it’s sticky, it’s too moist; if it’s crumbly and won’t hold together, it’s too dry. 

In mixing bowl, knead dough then shape into a ball. 

Oil bowl and dough.

TIP: I use a separate bowl for rising. I oil this bowl after placing eggs and oil in mixing bowl to save time.

 Cover bowl of dough and let rise until size doubles. This step can take several hours.

TIP: If you have a proofing setting on your oven, this will reduce the time required to rise. About 45 minutes will suffice. On the countertop it might take about 2 hours or so. Proofing can be repeated on the second rise as well to save time.

Punch down and roll out on a lightly floured surface. The recipe makes two standard—and traditionally, braided—loaves. 

TIP: The dough will rise, so you can roll fairly flat, but be careful not to overwork the dough. 

Add any desired ingredients (e.g., cinnamon, nuts, dates, raisins, chocolate chips, savory seasonings, etc.). 

For braiding, cut into desired number of strips. Roll strips (if desired) and braid. For shapes, use cookie or biscuit cutter or manually shape using a cutting device.

TIP: You can find instruction for many braid varieties with a You Tube or google search.  

Place prepared loaves or rolls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or on a silicon mat and let rise until size doubles.  

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Brush bread loaves with oil, then egg. Add salt or other topping as desired. For small items, bake 15 to 20 minutes. For larger items, bake 20 to 25 minutes.

TIP: Coarse ground salt and turbinado cane sugar work well as toppings. 

If desired, after removing from oven, brush butter over the crust for added flavor and moisture.

Cool and serve or store in airtight container.

Serving Suggestions

This is classic Hanukkah fare that makes a beautiful presentation, great for entertaining and gifting. Serve with any meal during Hanukkah or with other holiday meals. Also great as base for French toast. Serve with a charcuterie board, either to slice or as a pull-apart bread.

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