I love bread. That being said, challah is one of my favorite kinds. It is sweet but not overly so, soft and chewy, and great for snacking. So when I saw a local, hands-on challah-making class, I jumped at the chance to take it. What could be better? I’d learn how to make challah, AND get to take my own hand-made loaf home! The class was great—it was offered by a local Jewish education center and taught by a lovely woman who’s made countless challah in her lifetime.
While the class was over 2 years ago, I hadn’t gotten around to making my own challah again since then, even though it has always been on my mind to do so. With some extra time off for the holidays, I finally had enough time to devote to making fresh challah, so I decided to make a couple of loaves to give to my family for Christmas. Ironic, I know…Jewish bread for Christmas, but Jesus was Jewish, so I figured it was a good tie-in.
L. Smith and I took a day off from work to spend together, and we ended up making the challah that day. This was the first time I’d worked with yeast dough and kneading on my own since taking that challah class, so I’d forgotten the visual sight and feel of the kneading process. But, I was excited to try my hand at making the challah again. While I still had the recipe from the class, it called for 5 pounds of flour (to make 6 loaves), so I decided to scour the Internet for a more manageable recipe for my small kitchen. I ended up using this recipe from Mollie Katzen, which made 2 medium-to-large sized loaves.
The recipe called for 1 packet of yeast, ½ cup of honey (or sugar), 4 tablespoons of oil (or melted butter), 2 eggs, 1 tablespoon of salt, 8-9 cups of flour, and optional raisins, poppy or sesame seeds. I opted to make 1 plain loaf and 1 raisin.
L. Smith helped me make the dough. First we proofed the yeast by adding it to wrist-warm water (the water should be 110* to 115* F on a thermometer, but I don’t have one so I use this timeless trick), and 1 tablespoon of sugar and letting it rest for ~5 minutes until the liquid becomes foamy. Then we added ½ cup of honey, the oil (I used olive since that’s usually the only kind I have on-hand), salt, the eggs, and the flour, 1 cup at a time. We ended up adding8 cups. We mixed it with a wooden spoon and then began kneading it by hand in the bowl to bring the dough together. Next, I moved it to my (lightly floured) wooden cutting board that I use for rolling out dough so that I could knead it by hand. This step took a very long time, 10-15 minutes (maybe longer, I didn’t actually keep definite track of the time). At first I wasn’t sure if it was going well because the dough was very sticky, but I didn’t want to add too muchflour for fear of making the final product too stiff. I read a tip online that suggested letting the dough rest for a few minutes to help reduce the stickiness, so I tried that. It did seem less sticky when I returned, so I just kept at the kneading until my dough bounced back after being poked. At that point, I placed the dough in an oiled bowl, covered it with a towel, and let it rise in my warm oven for ~1 ½ hours until it was doubled in size. I gently punched it down and kneaded it for about 5 minutes. L. Smith and I then divided the dough in half and proceeded to make our individual loaves. I made mine a raisin loaf by kneading the raisins into the dough. I then divided my dough into 3 smaller balls which I rolled out into “snakes” and braided into my shaped challah loaf. L. Smith did the same, minus the raisins. We placed out loaves on greased pans and let them rise for another hour. Meanwhile, I preheated the oven for 375* and beat 1 egg to use it as a wash for the loaf crusts, to give them their signature sheen.
While the bread was baking (375* for 40 minutes), I could smell it rather quickly (about 20 minutes in), which surprised me since I’ve found that baked goods tend to start smelling fragrantly when they’re nearly done backing. I had set the timer for 40 minutes according to the recipe, but at half-way through the loaves were already pretty browned. I rotated the pans and switched from high to low racks, but decided to lower the temperature to 350* for the additional 20 minutes since they were so browned already, and I was worried they might burn.
Later, at my parent’s house, the loaves were well received (my family was impressed that L. Smith and I had made them, and my Mom loved the smell of the honey I used- she said she could smell it all night), but when we went to try the loaves, I found that the breads seemed dry and stiff, not soft and moist like challah should be. I think it may be that the temperature of my oven was too high, and I over-baked them. My mom suggested that I use more oil next time, to make the dough softer and chewier. I’m definitely eager to try making challah bread again, so I can tweak the recipe (add more olive oil and different flavored honey) and the baking time (maybe the temperature, too) to produce my ideal and characteristic challah bread- soft, chewy, easy-to-tear-off pieces for snacking, and sweet and delicious!