Tuesday 2 December 2014
Hanukkah runs between December 17th - 24th this year. Around Hanukkah I always share a recipe for something significant in Jewish cuisine. This will be the third Hanukkah since I started the blog. The previous two occasions I made matzo ball soup and latkes. This year I have decided to make braided challah bread (pronounced 'ha-la'). Challah is a sweet, eggy bread (similar to French brioche) that is typically enjoyed on Sabbath and just about every Jewish holiday. While it always has at least a little sweetness, it is prepared in both sweet and savoury ways. Some people dust their challah with cinnamon and sugar and eat it as a sweet snack. Sometimes it's baked plain or with a sprinkling of sesame or poppy seeds. One of my favourite ways to eat savoury challah is pulled apart and dipped in chicken soup.
I mentioned that this is a braided challah. Challah is braided for many different reasons and in many different ways. Trust me, that could be an in depth blog post all on its own. If you want to try to make this for fun, but don't want to bother with the braiding process, you could certainly just make a simple loaf with the dough and it will still be delicious. You can braid anywhere from three up to twelve strands. It may seem a little intimidating at first, but practice it in your head or with pieces of string, for example, and you will be surprised how naturally it will come to you. That being said, this was my first challah and it wasn't perfect. Usually when you see a braided challah it typically turns out like a very clean and visually appealing braid. There was some splitting between the creases of my braid (which I think may have been because I did not let my dough rise quite enough before baking it) but it also could have been for a couple of other reasons. Challah is almost always made with sugar but my recipe uses only honey as the sweetener. I also ran out of all-purpose flour and had to substitute a little spelt flour which I happened to have on hand. It's still a bit of a mystery, but if you follow the steps provided yours should be better than mine.
While this is simple and fun to make, we do have a lot to go over in this post. So let's jump right into it!
4 - 4.5 cups of all-purpose flour
1/3 cup runny honey
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites
1 package of yeast (a little over 2 tsps)
1 cup of warm water
2 tsps fine salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil (or any flavourless oil)
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
First step is to activate the yeast. Stir the package of yeast into 1 cup of warm water. The right temperature is crucial. If the water is not warm enough, it won't activate the yeast. If it's too hot, it will kill the yeast. The water should be very warm but still comfortable to the touch. A little bit of sugar or honey will help to activate the yeast as well, but it's not absolutely necessary. Leave the yeast to activate for 10 minutes. During this time a foam and sort of sourdough bread smell should develop.
While the yeast is doing that, combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and fill it with the 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, oil and honey.
Gradually combine the ingredients together by incorporating the wet into the dry a bit at a time. A wooden spoon works best for this. Mix just until they just come together.
Add the foamy, activated yeast to your mixture.
Continue to mix until a dough is formed. When it becomes difficult to stir, start using your hands. Do not fret if your dough does not look exactly like these photos. Making any kind of dough like this will behave and cooperate differently depending on where you live and the climate that day. So expect variable outcomes. If you feel like your dough is too sticky, add a bit of flour until it comes together. If it seems too dry, just add a little water.
When your challah dough has formed, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead with your hands for 6 - 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and springy.
Place the dough in a large, non-metal bowl and lightly cover it with oil. Not enough to make it oily but just to keep it from drying out. Then cover with cling wrap or a damp towel and leave it to proof in a warm, draft-free place until it has doubled in size. Inside your oven without it turned on is a great option. This usually takes between one and one and a half hours or so.
After about an hour and a half of waiting this is what my dough looked like: not quite doubled. If I had exerted more patience I probably would have had a nicer looking challah. So please do as I say, not what I did.
Take your dough and divide it into two equal parts.
Cut the two halves into thirds so that you have six equal pieces. The more equal they are in size and weight, the better your braid will turn out. Admittedly, I could have done a better job at this myself.
Take each piece of dough and use your hands to roll them into ropes. They should each be about 16 inches long and 1 inch wide. A large, flat and clean work space is essential for the next phase.
Lay the ropes of dough side by side. Join the tops of the ropes together and squeeze with your hands to form a solid connection.
This is more or less what your challah should look like at this point. I find this process is a little easier if you fan the ropes out as a pair of threes with a larger gap between them as you'll see in the photo after this one.
Now it's time to braid. I have alphabetized the six strands, A, B, C, D, E & F going left to right. I hope this helps you to identify which rope goes where during the braiding process.
Braiding is essentially four different steps repeated over and over until you've got a fully braided loaf. Some refer to the general rule as "over two, under one, over two". Let's take a look at how that's done. It doesn't matter which side you start out with. In these instructions we're going to start from the right. Take furthest from the right (F) and cross it over the top so that it is pointing to the left at a 0 degree angle.
Now do the opposite side. Take the furthest rope to the left (A) and cross it over the top so that it is pointing right at a 0 degree angle.
That's step one. Now take the same rope (A) and bring it down the middle.
Now that your A rope is in the middle, it will have two vertical pairs of ropes on either side (B & C to the left and D & E to the right). Take the B rope and cross it over the top to replace where the A rope was just before. Now you are back to a shape with two ropes sticking straight out on either side and four legs.
Take the rope sticking straight out to the left and bring it down between the two pairs of "legs". This is the F rope.
Now that we no longer have a rope sticking straight out to the left, we have to replace it with the furthest leg on the right. So take the E rope and cross it over the other ropes so that it is sticking straight out to the left.
Now take the rope sticking straight out to the right, B, and bring it down the middle of the two pairs of legs.
Already, you can start to see a braid forming at the top. Now that we no longer have a rope sticking straight out to the right, it needs to be replaced with the furthest leg on the left. which is C. Take your C rope and cross it over the top so that it sticks straight out to the right.
The way I see it, your six strands are kind of like a two-armed, four legged monster. The arms stick out to the sides and are constantly being replaced by the furthest leg from the opposite side. As you braid this pattern mirrors itself back and forth. Continue in this manner and before you know it, your challah will be braided.
As you braid the ropes will get shorter and shorter, which does make the end a little tricky. Braid as far as you can go and when you are left with little stumps simply pinch those together and tuck them slightly under the end of the loaf. Take a moment to straighten your braided challah out. I find it helps to gently tuck each end just slightly under the loaf for presentation.
Your lovely braided challah now needs to rise a second time. Place the loaf on a baking tray lined with either a Silpat or parchment paper. Cover with cling wrap and leave in a warm, draft-free place for about another hour. Not only will the dough rise but the gluten will relax and make the bread softer once it's baked.
When your dough has risen the second time, preheat your oven to 350 F/177 C.
Lightly brush the loaf with the egg whites. This will ensure a beautiful, golden brown colour when it bakes.
If you are adding sesame or poppy seeds, sprinkle them over the challah as soon as the egg wash is applied. If you prefer to make a sweeter challah and do a cinnamon and sugar coating, now is the time to add those.
Place in the middle of your preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, turning once halfway through. Enjoy the smell of fresh, homemade challah from scratch fill your kitchen.
Allow to cool a little before eating, but make sure you try it before it cools down completely. Fresh bread out of the oven like this, while it's still warm from the initial bake is absolutely the best way it can be consumed. Enjoy your challah any way you like. It's great on its own but you eat it with a warm bowl of soup. Butter is not a kosher ingredient, but if that's of no concern to you, a little butter spread over this is fantastic. In fact, you could replace the oil with melted butter for a rich yet non traditional alternative. Challah also makes some interesting sandwiches due to its slightly sweeter and eggier flavour compared to regular sandwich bread. If you have any challah left over that goes a little stale (good luck with that) it would make spectacular French toast or bread pudding.
It seems most people nowadays don't bake their own bread at home. It is actually a lot of fun and beats anything you can get at the store in terms of taste, texture and quality. I hope that this has inspired you to do some bread baking of your own and choose challah as a festive holiday option. There's nothing not to love about challah unless you're one of those who avoids gluten at all costs. It's the holidays. Live a little. ;)
Until next time, foodies! Although it's not for another couple of weeks, Happy Hanukkah and all the best in the new year!