It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.
Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales, but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)
Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.
Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”
The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.
Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.
This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.
Makes three small-medium loaves
1 packet active dry yeast
1.5 cups (350mL) lukewarm water
1/3 cup (80mL) honey
1 tsp table salt
1/3 cup (80mL) canola oil
3 eggs, beaten
5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading
1 egg, beaten
1/5 cup (50mL) cold water
1/2 tsp table salt
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)
- In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
- Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
- Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
- Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
- Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
- Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
- Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
- Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
- Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
- Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
- Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
- Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.
Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.