September 6, 2018

Challah

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

Recipe Tags

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Whatever the model and yield of your mixer, the goal is to achieve full gluten development with challah dough. Use the windowpane test to help determine the dough’s stage of gluten development.

 

Preshape each strand of dough into a simple bâtard shape.

Roll the preshaped strands out with your fingertips in a back-and-forth rolling motion, extending your arms out little by little, until the strand is about 58 cm / 23 in long. Be sure to leave the center thick and taper the ends.

Alternate placing the left and right strands over the center strand.

Brush the braided dough with a thin coat of vegetable oil, and proof on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. To prevent the crust from ripping, brush the surface with oil 2–3 times during proofing.

To check if the dough is properly proofed, gently press the exposed surface of the dough for 2 seconds. The pressure should leave a small dent in the dough. It will slowly spring back, but the indentation will remain clearly visible for 1-2 seconds.

This spiral-shaped challah is made during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. To create this special shape, roll 500 g of dough into an 18-inch strand without tapered ends. Curl the single strand from one end until it forms a spiral. You can also create a ring-shaped loaf by shaping a three-strand braided challah, and then bringing the ends together.

Tips and Substitutions

Tips for Mixing

  • Instant dry yeast is added all at once, and it can be dissolved in the water or sprinkled into the flour. We recommend hydrating the yeast in the water to ensure proper dispersion of yeast cells throughout the dough; this will make the dough ferment faster. If you don’t have much experience with this dough, combine the yeast with the flour instead. This will slow down the hydration of the yeast and the speed of fermentation, which will give you more time to work.
  • The final mixing time at higher speeds may vary from machine to machine. Whatever the model and yield, the goal is to achieve full gluten development. Consider our suggested times as guidelines. Use the windowpane test to help determine the dough’s stage of gluten development.
  • Because challah is a stiff dough, mixing it in a stand mixer can cause the machine to struggle and possibly burn out. If your stand mixer is dancing on the worktable, it either has too much dough or too stiff of a dough (or both) for it to handle. For a 4.5 qt bowl, you can mix on the lowest possible speed, which will double the mixing time. You can also mix the dough to a homogeneous mass, divide the dough in half, and mix it to full gluten development in two batches. In an 8 qt bowl, you can mix 1 kg dough to full gluten development.
  • We made a 2 kg yield for this dough because it is easier to mix this amount of firm dough in larger machines. If the ingredient quantities aren’t large enough for the dough hook to mix them well, use a paddle attachment initially to mix the ingredients uniformly. Once you have a homogeneous mass, switch to a hook attachment.

Tips for Shaping and Braiding

  • To create the strands for the braid, preshape each piece of dough into a simple bâtard shape. Roll the dough out with your fingertips in a back-and-forth rolling motion, extending your arms out little by little, until the strand is about 58 cm / 23 in long. Be sure to leave the center thick and taper the ends. Let the dough rest for 5–10 minutes, well covered with a clean plastic bag or tarp, before rolling it out to the intended length.
  • Once the dough strips are rolled out, you may braid the strands or chill them. Chilling them will allow for better and easier handling because the cold will firm up the dough. Keeping the strips well covered with a clean plastic bag or tarp during refrigeration will protect the dough’s surface from drying out.
  • Once you’re ready to braid the dough, place three strands side by side, leaving about 2.5 cm / 1 in between the pieces. Pinch the three pieces together at the top so that they stick to one another. Alternate placing the left and right strands over the center strand. Pinch the three ends of the dough together, and gently roll them so that they taper into a pointed tip. Tuck the tip under the braid.
  • Don’t pull on the dough while braiding. Pulling on the strands will make your loaf uneven. You shouldn’t feel any resistance as you lift and bring down each strand.
  • Taper the dough at the ends if you prefer a loaf that is slightly thicker in the middle. But avoid creating a grapevine-shaped loaf with a bulky top and very tapered ends. If the loaf is that lopsided it will proof and bake unevenly.
  • It’s okay to have a slightly loose braid. In fact, it is difficult to make the braid too loose because the dough needs space to expand naturally as it proofs, which will fill in any gaps. If the braid is too tight, though, the dough will rip and tear as it bakes.
  • Add a dough relaxer such as pineapple juice or kiwi juice to make the low-hydration dough easier to roll out to the desired length.
  • Chilling the dough before shaping makes it easier to roll out than a room-temperature dough.
  • Keeping track of which strand is which in the pattern is the key to successful braiding. Two- and three-strand braids are simple enough to execute, but braiding gets tricky when you increase the number of strands to four or more. See page 186 in volume 3 of Modernist Bread for more braiding techniques.
  • Braiding is a complex process when you do it for the first time, but as you practice, you will realize that the movements repeat, and you’ll get into a rhythm. Soon, braiding will become a natural, easy movement— and then you can explore more complex braiding techniques.
  • Practice braiding with ropes first so that you master the technique without wasting any dough. Simply cut lengths of rope and attach them at one end.
  • To make a spiral-shaped challah for Rosh Hashanah, shape 500 g of dough into an 18-inch strand without tapered ends. Curl the single strand from one end until it forms a spiral. Apply egg wash to the dough and sprinkle the sesame seeds on top. To create a striking ring-shaped loaf, simply shape a three-strand braided challah, and then bring the ends together.

Tips for Proofing

  • Because challah is braided, proofing is key—if the dough is not properly proofed, it’s going to tear in the oven. Use your finger to gently press the exposed surface of the dough for 2 seconds. The pressure should leave a small dent in the dough. It will slowly spring back, but the indentation will remain clearly visible.
  • Once the braided dough is ready to proof, brush each loaf with a thin coat of vegetable oil. To prevent the crust from ripping, brush the surface with oil 2–3 times during proofing.

Tips for Baking

  • Steam is not necessary for baking many enriched doughs; some bakers apply it, but it is not crucial for a successful bake.
  • Use the baking times on the previous page as parameters. Ovens vary from model to model. To ensure a proper bake, use a thermometer to check the challah’s core internal temperature, which should read 90–93 °C / 195–200 °F. When checking for doneness, take the temperature of a single loaf outside a home oven. An open door will cause the oven temperature to drop dramatically. This is especially important when you are baking multiple loaves. If one loaf is fully baked, they all should be, so there’s no reason to take the temperature of each loaf.
  • If baking in a home oven, place your baking rack just below the center of the oven. This way, when the pan is placed on the rack, the loaf will be in the center of the oven, where the temperature is optimal. Use an oven thermometer to ensure the oven is at the right temperature.
  • We recommend baking on a baking stone in a home oven. If you shaped and proofed the challah on a sheet of parchment paper, simply slide the parchment paper onto the stone. If you don’t feel comfortable sliding the dough onto the baking stone, leave it on the sheet pan and place the sheet pan on the baking stone. The bake time will be about 5 min longer.
  • If baking in a home oven, place the four loaves on two half-sheet pans (two loaves per pan). A full-size sheet pan won’t fit in a home oven.
  • The second egg wash in tandem with the venting step is crucial—it gives challah its characteristic sheen and deep brown color.

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