By Claire Saffitz, The New York Times
If you don’t have the patience for breadmaking (or for baking at all), chances are you’ll still find challah, the enriched bread often served on the Jewish sabbath and during the High Holy Days, not only manageable — but fun.
Compared with more technical breads, like sourdough loaves or baguettes, challah is mostly hands-off, with an easy-to-handle dough. Plaiting it into a braid is pleasantly tactile, and the end result always looks impressive, even if your braiding skills are average. The loaves are also versatile, lending themselves equally well to sweet preparations (bread pudding and cinnamon toast) and savory ones (sandwiches and accompaniments to soups, stews and saucy braises).
But challah is still bread, so all the principles of sound breadmaking — fermentation, bakers’ percentages and gluten development, to name a few — apply.
Some challah recipes, however, tend to gloss over those concepts, making pitfalls like undermixing and underproofing more likely and yielding bread that isn’t as silky and light as it could — and should — be. As a challah-lover and avid home bread baker, I wanted to create a classic recipe that not only has a rich, lightly sweet crumb and thready, pull-apart texture, but also integrates core breadmaking techniques to maximize your chances at success.
This particular recipe is forgiving, flexible and doable in a day. And that it’s rooted in technique makes it a fantastic gateway bread. If you’re bread-curious but not sure where to begin, start here. With Rosh Hashana starting on the evening of Sept. 25, make it now so you can enter the holiday baking season with a bit of bread experience under your belt.
Start With a Sponge
Many challah recipes call for mixing an unusually high proportion of yeast directly into the dough. Because active dry yeast, the most common yeast for home bakers, isn’t very efficient in a high-sugar, low-moisture dough like challah, adding a lot of yeast accelerates fermentation.
But a more rapid fermentation comes at the expense of taste and texture. So instead, I take the extra step of making a sponge by mixing a portion of the flour with water and a small amount of yeast. Similar to a sourdough starter but made with commercial yeast rather than wild yeast, a sponge is a type of preferment that is later mixed into the dough. As the sponge sits, the yeasts feed on the starches in the flour and multiply, making the mixture active and bubbly and removing the need to add additional yeast to the final dough. This extra fermentation time leads to bread with a much-improved texture, aroma and flavor.
Finding Ingredient Balance
Also worth noting about the recipe are the proportions of salt and flour, and the mixing method. Generally, the weight of salt in a bread dough should equal 2% of the total flour weight, and even several pinches will fall well short of that for the average loaf of challah. Salt brings out the dough’s flavor and strengthens the gluten network, leading to a well-formed loaf. The 11 grams of salt here may seem like a lot (especially if you’re watching your sodium), but it’s the correct amount.
The quantity of bread flour, in contrast, is left somewhat flexible to account for variation in how different brands absorb liquid. This recipe purposefully undershoots how much flour you’ll need and has you add more little by little during the kneading process until the dough texture is firm, elastic and supple yet slightly tacky. (While you could use a stand mixer, I prefer to knead by hand, as it allows you to better assess the dough.)
A high proportion of olive oil (my fat of choice for challah, as it adds flavor and keeps it pareve, meaning it’s compatible with meat and dairy according to kosher rules) inhibits gluten formation, so challah dough needs lots of kneading. Common in breadmaking, the windowpane test helps determine if you’ve developed sufficient gluten: Pinch off a golf ball-size piece of dough, flatten it, then slowly and gently stretch it outward in all directions until it’s so thin that light can pass through. Hitting this mark ensures the crumb comes out bready and stretchy instead of crumbly.
Let It All Take Shape
You can configure the dough into any shape you like — a round loaf with raisins, for example, is traditional for Rosh Hashana — but I think the most beautiful rendering is a six-strand braid. It looks like a smaller braid woven into the surface of larger braid, creating wonderful height and dimension. As it’s one of the more complex braiding techniques, you might want to practice with ribbon beforehand, or feel free to fall back on a simpler three-strand braid.
These details might make challah sound more complex than it really is, but in fact the undertaking is fairly straightforward. The various tests built into the recipe (and which will be familiar to many home bread bakers) will help you achieve the light but rich, supple and soft texture essential to good challah.
Once you have a feel for the process, you’re well positioned to try other breads like focaccia or a sandwich loaf. But challah is so wonderfully versatile that I wouldn’t be surprised if you decided to stick with it for a while. Try your hand at different braiding techniques, make lots of French toast and even use the dough to bake hamburger buns, sweet rolls and this fragrant cinnamon babka. It’s good and easy enough to be your one-and-only bread.
Recipe: Challah Bread
By Claire Saffitz
This challah recipe is ideal for first-time bread bakers, as it contains several checks and tests to indicate exactly when you’re ready to move on to the next step, minimizing the potential for failure. The biggest risk factor is underproofing, especially in a cool environment (the dough is temperature-sensitive), so for a light, silky loaf, make sure you give it sufficient time. If your oven has a proof setting, you can use it to speed up the process considerably.
Yield: 1 large loaf
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes, plus proofing and cooling
For the Preferment:
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 1/4 cups/169 grams bread flour
For the Dough:
- 1/2 cup/72 grams golden raisins (optional)
- 1/3 cup/113 grams honey
- 1/3 cup/75 grams extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature, plus 1 beaten egg, for egg wash
- 3 cups/405 grams bread flour, plus more for kneading the dough
- 11 grams kosher salt (about 1 tablespoon Diamond Crystal or 1 1/2 teaspoons Morton coarse kosher salt)
- Poppy or sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
1. Make the preferment: In a medium bowl, combine the yeast and 1/4 cup/57 grams warm tap water (100 to 110 degrees), and whisk until the yeast is dissolved. Add another 1/2 cup/113 grams room temperature water and the bread flour, and stir with a flexible spatula or bowl scraper until you have a smooth, pasty mixture with no dry spots. It should look like a thick batter.
2. Scrape the mixture into the center of the bowl and cover tightly. Let the preferment sit at room temperature until it’s nearly tripled in size, extremely bubbly across the surface, and jiggles on the verge of collapsing when the bowl is shaken, 1 to 2 hours (depending on the ambient temperature).
3. If making a raisin-studded challah, while the preferment is getting bubbly, place the raisins in a medium bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover the bowl and let the raisins soak until they’re plumped and softened, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the raisins, pat them dry, and set aside.
4. Mix the dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, olive oil, the yolk and 2 of the eggs until smooth, then add to the bowl with the preferment. Add the bread flour and salt. Use a flexible spatula or bowl scraper to stir the mixture, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to incorporate the preferment, until a shaggy dough comes together.
5. Knead the dough: Generously flour the work surface, then scrape the dough and any floury bits out of the bowl and onto the surface (reserve the bowl). Generously flour the dough. Use the heel of your hands to knead the dough, adding flour as needed if the dough is sticking to your hands or the surface, until the dough is very smooth, elastic and slightly tacky, 10 to 15 minutes. (You can also combine everything in a stand mixer and mix on low speed with the dough hook for 8 to 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.)
6. Test the dough: Pinch off a golf ball-size piece and flatten it with your fingertips. Stretch the dough outward in all directions gently and slowly: You should be able to form a sheet of dough that’s thin enough to allow light to pass through without tearing. If the dough tears, continue kneading. For a raisin-studded challah, use your hands to flatten the dough into a 1-inch-thick slab (the shape doesn’t matter) and scatter the drained raisins over the dough. Roll up the dough and gather it back into a ball, then knead until the raisins are distributed throughout.
7. Let the dough rise: Gather the dough into a smooth ball, dust lightly with flour and place back in the reserved bowl. Cover and let the dough sit in a warm spot until it’s doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours (depending on the ambient temperature).
8. Divide the dough: Punch down the dough inside the bowl to expel the gases that built up during the first rise, then scrape the dough out onto a clean work surface. For a braided loaf, use a bench scraper or knife to divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. (You can eyeball it, or weigh the pieces for accuracy — each piece should weigh 180 to 190 grams.) For a round loaf, divide the dough in half.
9. Braid or twist the dough: For a braid, roll each of the 6 pieces into snakes measuring about 18 inches long and slightly tapered at the ends. Dust the strands in flour to coat them lightly, then line them up so they’re side by side. Pinch together the ends of the strands to connect them at the top.
10. Take the strand on the far right and cross it over the other strands, so it’s all the way on the far left side, placing it perpendicular to the other strands. Then, take the strand that was originally on the far left, and is now second from the left, and bring it all the way to the far right, also placing it perpendicularly.
11. Fan out the remaining strands so there’s a generous space in the center. Take the strand on the far left and bring it to the center, but group it with the strands on the right. Next, bring the strand that’s second from the right and cross it over to the far left, also placing it perpendicular. Then, fan out the strands again, leaving a space in the center, and bring the strand on the far right to the center, grouping it with the strands on the left. Bring the strand second from the left to the far right and cross it over to the far left. Then, repeat this process until you’ve braided the entire length of the strands, tugging gently on the strands as you work to create tension in the braid. Pinch the ends of the braids and tuck them underneath the loaf, then transfer to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Make sure you have a couple of inches of clearance on either side of the braid so it can expand.
12. Alternatively, for a round, roll the two pieces of dough into long snakes measuring about 28 inches long, making sure to taper the snakes at one end. Dust the strands in flour to coat them lightly, then line them up so they’re side by side with the tapered ends aligned. Twist the two strands together, then start at the tapered end and roll up the twist into a tight coil, wrapping the fatter end around and tucking the end underneath the coil. Transfer the coil to a parchment-lined sheet pan.
13. Egg wash and proof the dough: Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl until it’s streak-free. Brush the loaf with the egg, then loosely cover the dough with some lightly oiled plastic wrap on a sheet pan, and let it rise at room temperature until it’s doubled in size, extremely puffy, and springs back but holds a slight indentation when poked gently with a wet finger, another 1 1/2 to 2 hours (but possibly longer, depending on ambient temperature). The dough is easy to underproof, so, if you’re unsure, err on the side of overproofing. (The round loaf will also take longer to proof.) Alternatively, before proofing, you can refrigerate the dough overnight, but omit the egg wash and make sure it’s covered (plastic should cover it loosely but be sealed around the pan so the dough doesn’t dry out).
14. Heat the oven: Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and heat it to 350 degrees.
15. Bake: Uncover the challah and brush with another layer of egg wash. Sprinkle the loaf with poppy or sesame seeds (if using) and bake until the loaf is shiny and burnished, an instant-read thermometer registers 190 degrees when inserted into the center, and it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the challah cool completely on the baking sheet.
Tips: The challah, stored in a paper bag at room temperature, will keep for 4 days. It benefits from toasting after the first day.
Recipe: Cinnamon Babka
By Claire Saffitz
This dairy-free babka, enriched with olive oil and flavored with a ribbon of almond flour, brown, sugar and cinnamon, starts with a classic challah bread dough. In the oven, the oil and sugar mingle to create a chewy, caramelized coating. You can omit the almond flour to make this nut-free, but the cinnamon ribbon will not be as pronounced. Be sure to let the babkas proof fully before baking, which will ensure a light, supple texture.
Yield: 2 babkas
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes, plus proofing and cooling
- 1 recipe Challah Bread dough, prepared as directed below
- 4 tablespoons/56 grams olive oil, plus more for the pans
- 1 cup/220 grams light brown sugar
- 1 cup/96 grams almond flour
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
- 1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon Morton coarse kosher salt
- All-purpose flour, for rolling
- 1 large egg
1. Prepare the dough: Prepare the Challah Bread through Step 5. Let it sit in a warm spot until it’s doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the pans and make the cinnamon mixture: Brush the bottoms and sides of 2 loaf pans with a thin layer of olive oil, then line the bottom and 2 longer sides with pieces of parchment paper, leaving an overhang on the sides. Brush the parchment with more oil, then set the pans aside. In a medium bowl, toss together the brown sugar, almond flour, cinnamon, orange zest and a generous pinch of salt until evenly combined, breaking up any lumps of brown sugar with your fingertips. Measure out 1/4 cup of the mixture and set aside for sprinkling over the tops of the babkas, then set the remaining mixture aside.
3. Roll out and fill the dough: Scrape the dough out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten it with the heel of your hand to expel the gas, then cut the dough in half (each piece will weigh about 570 grams). Place one half on a small rimmed baking sheet, cover and refrigerate while you roll out the other. Press and tug the piece of dough on the work surface into a flat, narrow rectangular shape. Then, roll the dough into a long, thin rectangle measuring about 24 inches long and 8 inches wide, dusting the top and underneath with just a bit of flour as needed to keep the dough gliding across the surface (don’t use too much flour, as you want some friction between the surface and the dough). Brush off any excess flour, then drizzle the dough with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brush the oil in an even layer all the way to the edges, leaving a clean 1/2-inch border on one of the longer sides. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon mixture, about 1 cup, (not including the 1/4 cup you set aside for the top) evenly across the surface and pat it gently into the dough.
4. Form and chill the babkas: Starting at the longer side opposite the clean border, roll the dough into a tight, spiraled log. Pinch the dough together at the seam so it closes, then squeeze the log to lengthen and thin it out until it measures about 28 inches long. Use a knife to trim off just the irregular ends, then cut the log in half crosswise. Place one half over the other, crossing them in the middle, then twist the halves together. Transfer the twist to one of the prepared pans and flatten it gently so it fills out the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and transfer it to the refrigerator, then remove the second piece of dough from the refrigerator and repeat the rolling and forming process, using the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the remaining cinnamon mixture. Cover the second pan and refrigerate. Chill the babkas for at least 4 and up to 12 hours.
5. Proof the babkas: Remove the babkas from the refrigerator and let them sit at room temperature until they’re nearly triple their original size and they come up to about 3/4 of the pan, 3 to 4 hours.
6. Heat the oven: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
7. Brush with egg and bake: Beat the egg in a small bowl until it’s streak-free. Uncover the pans and brush the egg across the surfaces of the dough. Sprinkle the babkas with the reserved 1/4 cup of cinnamon mixture, dividing evenly. Bake the babkas side by side (but not touching) until they’re deep golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Let them cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then run a paring knife down along the shorter sides of the pans to loosen them. Use the parchment paper to lift the babkas out of the pans and place on a wire rack. Let them cool completely.
Tips: The babka, stored covered at room temperature, will keep for up to 4 days in plastic wrap but is best served on the first or second day.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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