Sunday, November 23, 2008


Challah is a family tradition. Before I made it myself, I knew how to do it. For years I watched my mom beat and knead and braid the dough. It’s in my blood, as she would say. This is the very first yeast bread I ever made all by myself. I love it! The way it feels, the way it smells. I love baking bread in general, but challah is something special. When I dig into the dough and knead it out, I feel my foremothers. I feel them kneading this same bread as they have done for generations. The book the recipe came from is out of print, but not too hard to find. I found it through in 2002 so I could have one just like my mom. It’s by Sue Krietzman.

This loaf I made for the stuffing I’m doing on Thanksgiving. Fortunately, this makes a gigantic loaf, so I have some left over for sandwiches and such. I always do the half size recipe I learned from my mom. I can’t even imagine how ridiculously gigantic a full size recipe of challah would be. Challah is also amazing for French toast, so if you can manage, save some for that. Oooh! Or garlic bread. Yum!

Temperature is really important. All of your ingredients should be room temperature. The water needs to be the right temp so you don’t kill the yeast. Your house, or at least the kitchen, should be warm and not muggy. Also, remove any rings or jewelry before getting started. Your hands will get messy.

Challah is a really easy bread and great for your first foray into yeast breads. It comes together really easily and the results are always phenomenal.

From Deli: 101 New York-style deli dishes from chopped liver to cheesecake (half size with notes from my mom and me)

1 big fat Tb. yeast, room temperature
1¼ c. warm water (100-115 degrees)
1 Tb. honey
½ Tb. kosher salt
1/8 c. oil (I use olive)
4 c. flour (My favorite kind is King Arthur flour. I used their bread flour for this one)
2 eggs
[Yolk with 1 tsp. warm water]
[Poppy seeds]

I omitted the final two ingredients, which make for a very beautiful, shiny crust, as this loaf is destined for stuffing.

Combine yeast and water in a large bowl. I use my Kitchen Aid bowl as I do the dough in the mixer. So much easier! Wait 5 minutes. This is to make sure your yeast is still active. If it is, it’s really obvious after about 5 minutes. It should be foamy and alive. I think it’s really fun to watch, but I’m really into bread.

Stir in honey, salt, oil and 1 cup of flour. An easy trick with honey is to always grease whatever you’re using, in this case a tablespoon, with oil before adding the honey. Instead of sticking, it falls right out and you get the full amount. I do this part by hand and then move it to the mixer. I mix it on about speed 3.

Add eggs.

Add flour ½ cup at a time. I wait until the last ½ cup is incorporated into the dough before adding more. This prevents making a huge mess. If still sticky, add more flour. If you’re doing it in a mixer, it’s ready when the dough pulls away from the bowl.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface (I use my clean countertop as it doesn’t move around) and knead for 5 minutes if lots of kneading was done in the mixer. If doing it by hand, knead for about 15 minutes. You can knead it all in the mixer, but I prefer to finish it by hand. Dough is ready when smooth, satiny and lively. It’s really obvious when it gets to this point. As the Deli book says “It is easy to work with, and feels about as smooth as a baby’s tushy.” I love my deli cookbooks. If it is still sticky, add more flour. The dough has been kneaded sufficiently when two lightly poked finger holes spring back. Let the dough rest, covered, while you wash, dry, and oil the large bowl.

Form the dough into a ball and place in the bowl. Turn it so that it is coated with oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap (I do both, as per my dad) and place in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in bulk, about 1½ hours. To check for proper rising, gently poke two holes in risen dough and leave for 5 minutes. If the holes remain, the dough is ready.

Flour your first and punch down the dough. Turn out and knead a few times. Then let it rest, covered for a few minutes.

Preheat oven to warm and place baking sheet on stove to warm. Grease warm sheet.

Divide the dough into three equal parts. The book has two with a top braid, but that always falls off for me, so I just skip it. Roll balls into snaked. Braid dough, starting in the middle and braiding out each way. Pinch ends under.

Place on sheet and cover dough with cloth to double in bulk, about ½ hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees (the book says 400, but I think that’s for the monumental, ridiculous loaf).

Here you would mix your egg yolk with warm water to make a glaze and brush it over the dough and liberally add the poppy seeds. It looks really nice and if this bread is just for bread, do it. It’s worth it.

Bake for 45 minutes. Check at 30 minutes. When golden brown and a knuckle thump on the bottom produces a hollow sound, it’s done. Mine is usually done at 30 minutes. Let sit for 15-30 minutes, and then serve. Although my mom says this, I always snag a piece or two warm. It’s great by itself, or with butter or honey. As the Deli book says “Be careful or it will vanish before it even cools.”

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