24 April 2010

Challah, slow or fast

I haven't made challah in about 2 years, but we held a big Shabbat dinner last night, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the craving for my house to smell like fresh-baked bread. George drove to the supermarket in the early afternoon to get ingredients, but hours ticked by and he didn't return. I grew pretty frantic because it usually takes more than four hours to make challah. The only yeast we owned was 1 package of Rapid Rise (bread machine) yeast, and I've always made challah with normal yeast. George was supposed to bring back normal yeast, but I couldn't wait any longer.

So I looked up substituting bread machine yeast for normal yeast. I found out that if I substituted it I would save a lot of time, but the bread would likely lose some flavor. (The challah indeed may have tasted a little blander than usual, but I couldn't remember because it had been two years since my last taste.) I also read that you should add bread machine yeast to the dry ingredients instead of the usual flour-sugar-water combination because liquid slows down the rising action, but by the time I realized this it was too late. I just let the dough rise an extra fifteen minutes at the end; it wasn't a big deal. Those loaves ballooned enough.

I made the challah according to recipe but instead of the first 2 hour rise I simply let the dough "rest" (covered with a damp towel) in the bowl for 10 minutes. Then without punching it down, I tore the dough in half and formed two braided loaves right onto the baking sheet (with parchment paper). I covered those loaves with a damp cloth and put the baking sheet in a warm place for an hour. Finally I brushed the loaves with egg yolk mixed with cold water, sprinkled on sesame seeds, and baked the loaves for 25 minutes. The loaves baked into some of the most beautiful challah I had ever seen. My guests scarfed down the first loaf in a matter of minutes.

I'm going to write down the original recipe, and if you want to save about 2 hours but possibly sacrifice some flavor, you can just do what I described above. I tried 6 challah recipes before I found one that tasted and looked right— I received this widsom from a Jewish friend whose Jewish cousin figured out this recipe. For all those looking for authenticity, rest assured: it's Jewafiable.

If you want to make this vegan—and I've never tried—I looked it up and I think you can substitute 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed mixed with 3 Tbsp. water (some say 1/4 C. water works better) for each egg, and 1/2 Cup canola or olive oil for the butter. The flaxseed should give it a nuttier texture and flavor. I've also successfully used unsweetened applesauce as a butter substitute in other bread recipes; it makes bread much moister, though.

I don't think this recipe could successfully be altered for people with celiac disease—I researched all the sites and I think you're better off going with an original GF recipe. Apologies!

Amazing Challah


1 1/4 Cups unbleached all purpose flour
4 1/4 - 5 1/4 Cups unbleached bread flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 package yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1 Cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 Cup softened butter (I put thin slices in the microwave for 30 seconds)
1/4 tsp. turmeric, for color
4 eggs, room temperature if possible
1 tsp. cold water
handfuls of poppy or sesame seeds


1. Combine all purpose flour, water, sugar, and yeast in a very large metal or glass bowl. Let it sit for a bit, about 5 minutes, until good and bubbly.
2. Add butter, salt, and turmeric. Beat together with an electric mixer.
3. Separate 1 egg yolk and save it. To the batter add the remaining egg white plus the 3 other eggs. Beat at high speed for 2 minutes. Blend in the bread flour one cup at time (After the first cup don't use the electric mixer—you'll break it). You want the dough to become soft and not sticky.
4. Knead the dough for 10 minutes in the bowl you mixed it in. Form it into a spherical shape. Cover completely with a damp cloth towel. Let it rise about 2 hours until doubled in size. Punch it down! Reform into sphere.
5. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper. At this point you can braid the dough into either 1 or 2 loaves. (I recommend 2). First divide the dough into 2 halves. Then divide each half into three equal lumps. Rolls those lumps between your hands into sausages. Lay the longest sausage between the other two on the parchment paper. Start braiding from the middle, then braid as far as possible to the each of the ends of the sausages. Pinch the remainder of the ends together and fold underneath so that they look respectable.
6. Cover the loaves with the damp towel and place in the warmest place you can find. Let rise again for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
7. Mix the remaining egg yolk with the teaspoon of cold water. Dip a pastry brush into the yolk and brush it evenly over the top surface of the loaves (this will make it shiny). Then sprinkle lots of poppy or sesame seeds evenly over the loaves.
8. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes if you made 2 loaves or about 35 minutes for 1 loaf. Serve warm, and have a Shabbat Shalom!

I found that this tastes much better if:
1) You use the slow method
2) You gently shake the yeast/water/sugar/flour so that it aerates, which makes the yeast really happy and prolific
3) You use as little flour as humanly possible
4) You knead until a little pull of dough has the consistency of a nice ear lobe
5) You let it rise outside in the moist heat.

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