Soft, plaited, and with a shiny crust, challah is an easily recognized loaf that is often prominently displayed on bakery shelves during Jewish holidays and on Fridays for Shabbat. While the bread has a distinctive richness that’s reminiscent of brioche, it is traditionally pareve (it contains no meat or dairy), so it is made with oil rather than butter, as well as much less liquid. The whole eggs and egg yolks give the bread its lush flavor and golden color.
A typical challah is made by braiding ropes of dough. The process can be tricky at first, but it can become second nature with practice. Because challah is traditionally braided, proofing is key—if the dough is not properly proofed, it will tear in the oven. Challah isn’t as finicky as brioche because challah’s lower hydration level makes it less prone to collapsing. Challah dough typically gets an egg wash to make the crust shine, but take care not to let the wash drip down the sides, or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your braids. You can up the shine factor by opening the oven vent after the bread begins to brown.
Varieties of challah often involve creating different shapes or adding various flavorings. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, challah loaves are made in a circular or spiral shape for various symbolic reasons—depending on whom you ask, the round shape represents continuity, the wheel of the seasons, or a spiral of upward progress.
Traditional challah recipes generally limit additions to honey, raisins, or saffron and sometimes toppings like nigella, sesame, and poppy seeds. We’ve come up with our own variations on challah that feature vanilla, Earl Grey tea, and chocolate as well. When the bread begins to stale, it makes terrific French toast.
– Adapted from Modernist Bread