Possibly the most aesthetically pleasing bread, challah is traditionally baked for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, commemorating the manna from heaven to the children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. The dough is rich with eggs, the loaves are glazed with egg wash for a lustrous sheen and the taste is simply heavenly – like manna.
The first time I made it was memorable: can dough rise excessively? Can you actually inspect the proving loaf and cry: ‘No! It’s risen too much!!!’ You can. I did.
The beautifully plaited loaf, lovingly brushed with egg white for a shiny glaze, expanded so much that my braids were almost gone! Like a good-looking woman who let herself go and turned into a fatty, her features swollen up by layers of fat, so my dainty intricate loaf puffed up almost to lose the clefts and crevasses. Mind you – it was still fantastic, beautiful warm and fresh, sliced and slathered with butter, and it made the most delishhh toast under the sun. But the look wasn't the sharpest.
I've learned since - if you have too much time on your hands between the shaping and the baking, stick the plait in the fridge. It will be rising there anyway - it sure is egg-loving dough. bring it back to room temperature before baking, or bake straight from fridge - it's a resilient loaf.
My recipe is a combination of several, drawing heavily on The Kitchn but converted to metric measures. I add poppy seeds for topping but I remember the challah from my childhood, covered with very faintly sweet crumbs – a Proustian memory! Must do it next time: 1 – 1 – ½ sugar, flour and oil if you’re interested.
challahServings: 1 large loafTime: just over 3 hours
- 20g fresh or 2 tsp fast action yeast
- 240g lukewarm water
- 500 – 560 strong bread flour
- 45g caster sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk (reserve the white for the egg wash)
- 60g vegetable (rapeseed or groundnut) oil
- poppy seeds to sprinkle (optional)
1. Mix the yeast into the water, add a spoonful of sugar and let it stand for a few minutes to froth up. Place the flour, salt and the remaining sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Add the eggs, the egg yolk and the oil into a well in the middle of the flour. Mix briefly, pushing the flour off the sides into the liquid in the middle.
2. Pour the yeast mixture over the dough. Mix into a rough dough, then knead by hand on a floured surface for about 10 minutes or in the standing mixer with a dough hook attachment, for at least 5 minutes. You might want to add more flour if the dough seems very sticky. You’re aiming at smooth, elastic dough that stops sticking to your hands or bounces off the sides of the bowl. Cover and leave it in a warm place for 1 – 1 ½ hour until doubled in size.
3. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide into three equal pieces (this is the easy braid, just like a plait, you can have a go at six braids if you like a challenge). Roll each piece out into a long rope, about 40cm long. If they spring back, let them rest for 5 minutes and try again.
4. Make the braid by bunching the three ropes together at one end, place each outside rope on top of the middle one, just like plaiting hair. Pinch together the other end and tuck both underneath the loaf to shape neat ends.
5. Place the loaf carefully on a baking sheet lined with parchment and sprinkled with a little flour, dust the loaf with more flour, sparingly, cover loosely with a clean tea towel and leave to prove and puff up considerably for about 30-40 minutes.
6. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Beat the reserved egg white with a couple of tablespoons of water and brush all over the loaf, making sure it goes into all the cracks. Sprinkle with poppy seeds, if using.
7. Bake on the middle rack for 35 – 40 minutes, turning the loaf around halfway through. Cool on a wire rack.