When I began to study for my conversion to Judaism, I was obsessed with baking challah. The braided egg bread that is served on Shabbat to remind of manna from heaven became a north star. If I could make challah from scratch, then I could become a Jew.
I’ve since learned that it’s not the cornerstone of cooking for all Jews like I was thought, but it is still one of the best dishes I’ve learned to make since I began this journey in 2004.
I documented the recipe I use on Flickr in 2007 and to this day, I google myself to find the photo album when it’s time to bake challah.
2 packets of granulated yeast
2 cups warm/hot water
½ cup sugar
7 cups of white flour
2 teaspoons of salt
1/3 cup oil
½ cup golden raisins (optional)
Poppy seeds (optional)
Step 1: Dissolve 2 packages granulated yeast in 2 cups warm/hot water. Add ½ cup sugar. Set aside.
Advice: The cookbook I got this from said tepid water—but I learned that tepid water won’t activate yeast. It’s important to use hot water (you can nuke it for a minute before you add the sugar and yeast), because you want to make sure that the yeast is still good. You do this by proofing it with sugar in hot water. I’ve wasted so many ingredients when I was too impatient to proof the yeast.
Step 2: Mix together 7 cups of white flour and 2 teaspoons of salt.
Advice: This recipe is for white flour. For wheat bread recipe, go somewhere else. Another two loaves that I threw in the trash not knowing it couldn’t be a straight substitution.
Step 3: In a separate dish (I use a pyrex measuring cup) lightly beat two eggs and add to the flour mixture. Also add 1/3 cup of oil (I use olive oil) to the flour mixture.
Step 4. Stir it all up a bit to mix in the eggs.
Step 5. Add the proofed yeast, sugar, water mixture to the flour/egg/oil mixture.
Step 6: Stir it together with a big spoon and get it sticky enough that you can put it on the counter to knead the dough.
Step 7: Knead the dough on your counter. It’ll be sticky, but just get some flour on your hands. As Lotte Schaalman of blessed memory taught us – knead the dough until it feels like a woman’s breast.
Rise One: Place in a well oiled bowl, cover and allow to rise in a warm, draft free place until double in size. About two hours. Need a warm place? Turn on the oven for a minute and then turn it off. Pop the bowl in the oven covered with a towel for a couple hours.
Rise Two: Punch it down and let it rise for another hour
Shaping and third rise: Separate the dough in half and then into thirds and roll until you get long strands. I learned that dough needs to be stretched, then rested, then stretched again and then rest again… on and on until it’s a long enough strand to braid. Gluten is a tricky molecute and needs to be coaxed into stretching. If I need to manage time, I’ll put the braided dough into the fridge overnight and bake the following morning.
Divide dough and braid into 2 loaves. Traditionally you make two loaves, but this recipe is massive. It makes three loaves easy. I make 2-3 loaves and keep one, give away the rest. Place on a greased cookie sheet and allow to rise for two hours.
To braid, divide the dough into three parts. Roll each into a long snake of even thickness. Then pinch together the ends and braid as you do hair. As an alternative, overlap braids in the other and braid toward the end. What? I suggest going online to find some visuals for this one. That was what I did, it is actually very easy to do.
Baking: Brush with egg wash (1 part egg, 1 part water, well whisked) and sprinkle with seeds. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Knock on it to see if it sounds hallow – then you’ll know you have a good bake.