The Baker: Russian Challah (Jewish Egg Bread)

Sunday April 5, 2015

out of the oven and cooling/one with poppy seeds, the other plain

This is my friend Ilana Sharum’s grandmother’s recipe from Russia, which she had transcribed over the phone to me from her recipe written in cursive Hebrew. It is one of my most treasured recipes and I make it for just about every special occasion. There is a saying that when you make this traditional bread (every Friday), you are creating an atmosphere, not just food. Because the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar differ, Jewish holidays fall on a different Western day every year.

If you are a beginning baker, start with this recipe. It is guaranteed success. The braids are very forgiving and all

image: muchnikarts' "the challah ladies"/Lithograph Signed & Numbered

misshapen bumps and lumps disappear in the heat of the blessed oven.This egg-rich dough is remarkably soft and silky in texture, with a pale translucent quality due to the eggs. This quality makes it able to be shaped into a myriad of loops, braids, swirls, wreaths, filled with fruit, cinnamon bread, and pull-apart rolls. It can be oversized as a freeform loaf, or braided and put in a 9-by-5-inch bread pan for sandwiches or panini.

This recipe can be made by hand or with an electric stand mixer, just the way I got the recipe from Ilana. It bakes up rich and cake-like, with a unique delicate flavor. You will be addicted after the first bite.

I have quite a few excellent challah recipes, all with proportions a bit different. I will post them from time to time. Most challah is a freeform plain braided loaf, glazed with an egg yolk wash and perhaps garnished with sesame seeds or poppy seeds. But modern challahs incorporate all sorts of complementary ingredients to make the loaf special, like olive paste, sundried tomatoes, basil, cardamom, almonds, and pumpkin. I make fantastic pumpkin cinnamon rolls from the challah dough, which I will post in the future.

Good for summer pudding, bread puddings, stratas, and croutons. It also makes excellent morning toast with a fruit spread, the best French toast, and is good for grilled sandwiches. Be sure to slice with a serrated knife so as not to tear the bread.

bread with a cake-like texture

Overview

Equipment

  • Small and large (at least 6 quart) mixing bowls, Large balloon whisk and wooden spoon

OR

  • Heavy-duty electric mixer with flat paddle attachment and dough hook
  • Measuring spoons and cup
  • Plastic and metal dough scrapers
  • Pastry brush
  • Small sharp knife for scoring
  • Wire cooling rack
  • Two large baking sheets
  • Total preparation time:  About 5 1/4 hours
  • Baking temperature:  350º

Makes 2 large braided loaves


Ingredients

  • About 7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup warm water (105º to 115º)
  • 2 tablespoons (2 1/2 packages) active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups warm water (105º to 115º)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup organic canola oil or light olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water, for glaze
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds or poppy seeds

Instructions

Mix the dough: In the large bowl, using the  whisk, place 6 cups of flour.  Make a well in the center with your hand and pour the 1/2 cup of water into the center.  Sprinkle the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the water.  Stir gently to dissolve (a bit of flour will also be incorporated) and let stand 15 minutes.  Add the remaining sugar, water, eggs, oil, and salt to the well and mix with a large wooden spoon or your hand with the fingers outstretched until a shaggy mass of dough is formed.  Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time.  The dough will form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl.  This dough comes together quickly, so long mixing is not necessary.  Alternately, this dough can be mixed in the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.

kitchen aid with the paddle, whisk, and dough hook attachments, and flour shield

Kneading: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface with the plastic pastry scraper and knead by folding, stretching, and pulling until soft and springy, 5 to 8 minutes by hand and 2 to 3 minutes with the bread hook, if making with the Kitchen Aid, adding flour only 1 tablespoon at a time, just enough as necessary to prevent sticking.  The dough will be smooth and springy, but not dry.

dough rising in plastic bucket

First rise: Place the dough into a lightly greased deep container.  Turn the dough once to coat the top and cover with pastic wrap.  Let rise at room temperature until double in bulk, about 2 hours.  Do not allow the dough to rise over double, as it has a tendency to tear.

kneading by hand

Second Rise: Gently deflate the dough by punching your fist into the center and turning the dough over, recover and let rise again until once again doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

3-strand braid instructions

Shaping and third rise: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured  work surface to deflate.  Without working the dough further, with a sharp edge, divide the dough into two equal portions.  Divide each portion into 3 equal sections. Roll each section with your palms into a rope that is tapered at each end and gently dusted with flour (this keeps the shape more distinct during rising).  Be sure the ropes are of equal size and shape.  Lay the 3 rope strands side by side. Braid like braiding hair (see diagram to the left).  Gently place the loaves onto the greased or parchment-lined baking sheet side by side.  Brush the tops with the egg glaze.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until the dough is almost doubled in bulk, no more as it rises a lot in the oven, about 45 minutes.

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350º.

a variety of shapes and last rising before baking

Bake off and cooling: Brush the surface of the loaf a second time with the egg glaze and sprinkle with seeds or leave plain.  Place the pans on the center rack of the preheated oven and bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until the surface of the loaf is deep golden brown in color and sound hollow when tapped on the top and bottom surface with your finger.  Remove the loaf from the pan immediately to a cooling rack.  Loaves are best slightly warm or at room temperature.

Storage: Challah has an excellent shelf life, staying moist about 3 days, and not staling quickly.  Store wrapped in a plastic food storage bag or in a bread box , or freeze up to 2 months wrapped in two layers of freezer bags or wrapped first in a layer of plastic wrap and then a layer of aluminum foil.

turbans

This recipe also yields the following shapes:

  • four 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with two (wrapped around each other to make a twist) or three-strand braids
  • 2 cushion-like swollen triangles
  • 2 to 4 whorl-like turban spirals
  • 1 three-strand braid shaped into a large wreath
  • two 4-strand braids
  • 2 monkey breads in a tube pan

individual challahs/photo courtesy of Peter Callahan

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


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