Although I’m not actually very familiar with Judaism myself, since I first saw a loaf of this challah bread, it completely mesmerized me. I found its multiple shapes, beautiful deep brown color, and all that symbolism and tradition behind it totally fascinating —not to mention that baking bread is always a unique experience, which is something that I simply love.
Challah (in plural challot / challos) is a special Jewish, usually braided, bread eaten on Sabbath and holidays. Sabbath (related to the Hebrew verb “to cease”; “to rest”) refers to the seventh day of the Jewish week and it is the day of rest and abstention from work as commanded by God. It involves two interrelated commandments: to remember (zachor) and to observe (shamor).
Sabbath also represents the idea of unity. The six days of the week are the paradigm of diversity. They are like six directions in our three-dimensional world –north, south, west, east, up and down. It is believed that during these days, we are searching outward, full of action and initiative, and trying to master our environment. On the other hand, Sabbath represents the inner point and is full of the unity and the peace that comes with this unity.
The pure, simple, unadorned word “challah” means, among other ideas, “a loaf of bread”. It also refers to the Mitzvah (any of the divine precepts and commandments listed in the Torah), which is separating a portion of dough for the Kohanim (Hebrew word for “priest” in biblical times); that is, a portion that is taken out of the dough before it is baked.
Challah is made in various sizes and shapes (such as spirals, keys, birds, books and flowers), all of which have a meaning. Braided ones, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common, and because they look like arms intertwined, symbolize love. Three-strand braided challot symbolize truth, peace, and justice. The twelve-strand ones recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel. Round loaves, where there is no beginning and no end, symbolize continuity. However, there is not a lot of information written as to the cultural significance of the four strands. Rather, it is viewed as a way to elaborate on the more common three-strand braid in order to fulfill the obligation to beautify the commandment and make it more special. Sweet challah with honey or raisins is usually baked during Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to bring joy and happiness.
Seeds (poppy, sesame, coriander, etc.) are sometimes sprinkled on challot just before baking. Some say the seeds symbolize the manna that fell from heaven while the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years after their Exodus from Egypt.
It is not a really complex recipe, but you do need to observe the right times and temperature as well as have some previous practice braiding. So here’s my final version, after a few unsuccessful attempts, of this awesome, delightful bread. I must say that, after all that time wondering about this iconic bread, it has turned out to be a complete delicacy. So, if you haven’t tasted it yet, make sure you try some at least once in your life.
PLEASE NOTE: I undertook quite a thorough research about the whole question and I hope I got everything correct. But if not, please forgive any illiteracy and/or any misunderstanding on this matter. I can safely say that I have been working on this recipe with absolute respect all the way, and so I really hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
- ½ cup (120 ml) lukewarm water (120-130º F / 50-55ºC)
- 1½ teaspoons (5 g) dry active yeast
- 3¼ - 3½ cups (420 - 455 g) all-purpose flour (plus extra flour for kneading the dough)
- ¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon (55 g) granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- ¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil
- 1 egg white plus 1 tablespoon (15 ml) water
- Sesame or poppy seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
- Dissolve 1 teaspoon of the sugar into a small bowl with the lukewarm water and sprinkle the yeast over it. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes until you see a thin frothy layer across the top (in the event this didn't happen, your yeast has likely expired and you'll need to discard it).
- Meanwhile, in the bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, (or a large mixing bowl if you're kneading by hand) whisk together 3¼ cups (420 g) of the flour, the remaining ¼ cup (50 g) sugar, and salt until totally combined.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the eggs, egg yolk, and oil. Mix until incorporated.
- Now change paddle attachment to the dough hook and add the yeast mixture (see point 1).
- Knead the dough on low speed for 6-8 minutes (alternatively, transfer the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for about 8-10 minutes) until the dough is smooth and elastic, pulls away from the bowl easily -a little tacky though- and holds a ball-shape. If the dough feels sticky, add some (or all) of the remaining flour, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency.
- Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl (you can wash, rinse, and dry the mixing bowl you used for kneading), cover tightly with plastic wrap and either:
- place it in the refrigerator and let it rest at least overnight (long and cold fermentation produces more of the desirable flavor); the next morning, remove it from the fridge and let the covered bowl sit on the counter at room temperature for at lest 30-60 minutes, until the dough is doubled in size. Or rather,
- let it rise until doubled in a warm, draft-free place for about 1½ to 2 hours.
- When you are ready to braid your challah bread, transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and punch it down a few times to release all the gases and air. Cover with a clean kitchen cloth and let it rest for 10 minutes.
- Use a dough scraper or a large, sharp knife to cut the dough into 4 equal portions (a kitchen scale is very useful here, although not totally mandatory).
- Roll each piece of dough into a long rope about 16-inches (40 cm) long. (If the ropes shrink as you try to roll them, let them rest for 5 minutes to relax the gluten and try again after that).
- Place the four ropes in parallel and pinch tops together and tuck under (you may need to wet your fingertips lightly to help keep them together). Braiding a four-strand challah is a very easy task; take the right-most rope (or the left one if you're left-handed) over the next rope beside it, under the next one, and then over the last rope. Repeat this pattern until you are done. Try braiding with a very loose hand, while keeping it together. Don’t pull on the strands or stretch them too much when you are braiding –you want to keep the braid loose so that the dough has room to expand during the next proofing of the dough and when it bakes. See 4-strand braiding step by step below; it is really easy! (click on image to take a closer look):
- Once you reach the end, pinch bottom ends of the ropes together and tuck them under the loaf.
- You need to fluff up the loaf a little to make it a little thinker and give it more of a loaf shape. Place both hands at both ends of the braid and gently push the two ends toward each other, just like fluffing up a pillow.
- Place your braided loaf onto a lined baking sheet and sprinkle with a little more flour on top.
- Cover with a clean kitchen cloth, place it in a warm, draft-free spot and let it rise until almost doubled, about 1 hour.
- About 20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven (electric) to 350º F (175ºC) and place oven rack in the middle position.
- When ready to bake, gently brush off the excess flour with a dry pastry brush, whisk the reserved egg white with a tablespoon of water and gently (I can't stress this gently brushing enough) brush it all over the challah with a new pastry brush. Be sure to get in the cracks and down the sides of the loaf. (If desired, sprinkle with seeds of your choice now)
- Bake for 30-35 minutes until the top is deep golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on bottom.
- Let your challah cool on a cooling rack until just barely warm before slicing and eating.
There's nothing like freshly baked bread, but this challah keeps perfectly well for a few days if stored well wrapped at room temperature.
- It is common knowledge that challah bread makes the best French Toasts (in Spanish).
- For extra sweetness, feel free to substitute granulated sugar for the same amount of honey and/or add some raisins.
Author’s note: Both recipe and images have been edited as of 16th March, 2021.
Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Chabad.org, My Jewish Learning et al.