The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, and that means it’s time for me to share one of my favorite breads. Regardless of your religious background or practices, you have probably heard of, seen or tasted this classic Jewish bread, which is rich with eggs, oil and honey. Challah is a mainstay of Jewish life, and is served weekly at Shabbat services and especially during holidays—or, at least, the ones in which leavened bread is allowed. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to enjoy this round version of challah, and there’s no doubt every last crumb will be gone before the fasting of Yom Kippur begins next Tuesday.
The great thing about challah, besides the fact that it is a sweet, soft and tasty bread, is that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it or to make it (I’m proof of both points). From the time I became seriously involved with my husband, Les, I have been very interested in learning the foods of his Jewish heritage, and challah has become a favorite in our rotation. My sourdough version is a bit sturdier than a yeasted loaf, thanks to the higher protein bread flour that ensures a good oven rise. But the texture is still airy and it makes excellent toast, French toast and bread pudding.
There are two main challenges I’ve faced in making sourdough challah, but both can be resolved with time and practice. The first is the challenge of getting this dough to rise; any bread dough with a high volume of sugar (or honey, in this case) struggles against the yeast action, and challah is even more so because it contains so much heavy oil. The best way to win this battle is simply to give it more time. From start to finish, this bread takes almost a full day, but most of that time is spent just waiting—for the pre-ferment to be ready, for the dough to double in size (which it hardly ever does), and for it to rise for baking. Make it on a day that you have lots of other things going on at home so you aren’t tempted to stand and watch it, which I have learned the hard way doesn’t make it happen any faster.
The second challenge with making challah (sourdough or otherwise) is creating the beautiful, braided shapes. This is not nearly as complicated as you might think, and I’ll share my own technique for doing this, whether you want to try making a basket-weave round (as in the featured photo) or a simpler straight braid, which is no more difficult than braiding a kid’s hair. For Rosh Hashanah, I like to make challah in a round, as its shape is a symbol for coming full circle into a new spiritual year.
For extra flair and flavor, I use orange- or lemon-infused olive oil in my dough because I love the aroma of the challah in the oven and the intoxicating citrus scent in the finished loaf. Extra virgin olive oil does impart a slightly stronger flavor to the challah, but I find it delicious. Also, I frequently add dried fruit to the dough as it is rolled up for braiding, but the photos I’ll share are mainly without it. If you do choose to add dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, don’t concern yourself with rehydrating it first; it bakes up beautifully straight from the package, and for your effort, you’ll be rewarded with beautifully studded slices. Did I mention that it is amazing in French toast? 🙂
This bread requires a ripe sourdough starter, an intermediate overnight feeding, about 3 hours to ferment on baking day, and up to 5 hours for final rise after shaping, so plan accordingly. Don’t let this lengthy process alarm you; if you make the starter the night before, you only need about an hour of hands-on time for making the dough and about half an hour to shape it for proofing. As I said, there’s a lot of waiting. All my measurements are metric, so please depend on a digital scale for getting your ingredients right.
You’ll begin the night before you plan to bake, with creation of a firm starter, which is essentially an in-between feeding that bridges the basic wet starter and the final dough. This type of starter, also called “levain,” uses less water than a wet starter, and it concentrates the rising power of the culture in your final dough. Begin with a slight amount of ripe wet starter, stirring in water to make a slurry and then flour and mixing it together until no dry flour remains. The firm starter must ferment several hours, so it’s easiest to do this the night before and leave the bowl covered at room temperature, then bake the next day. If you wish, you can make the firm starter farther ahead and then refrigerate it for up to one day.
The next morning, measure out your flour and get all the other ingredients lined up, including your firm starter, which should be cut into pieces for easy introduction to the final dough. Most of the moisture in this dough comes from oil and eggs, so there is very little water to measure for the final dough. In this picture, my honey is stirred together with the small amount of water, but I usually measure the oil first and then measure the honey in the same cup—it slides right out without sticking. You’ll have an easier time mixing the eggs into the dough if they are closer to room temperature, so give them a few extra minutes on the counter before you begin.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a really large mixing bowl, if you don’t mind mixing by hand), combine the eggs, oil, honey and water and whisk until even. Add the flour all at once. Mix until all flour is completely incorporated, about two minutes in a mixer. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 30 minutes. This gives the flour time to absorb the moisture, and kneading is easier at that point.
After the rest time, the salt will have begun to dissolve. Knead on medium speed to fully incorporate the salt, which should take 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the dough to the counter or kneading board and press several pieces of the firm starter all over it. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) and press in the remaining pieces of firm starter. Move the dough back into the mixing bowl and knead on medium speed for 6 minutes, long enough to evenly blend the firm starter into the dough and also to get the gluten development going. Transfer the dough to a large bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 3 hours to ferment.
When the dough has fermented (you’ll know because it won’t spring back from a good finger poke), turn it out onto the counter and divide it into halves. This recipe makes two loaves; return one half of the dough to the bowl while you shape the first. Depending on how adventurous you want to be with braiding, divide the first dough section into either 3 or 4 equal-sized pieces. A 3-strand challah is made the easy way, as you would braid a child’s hair. To make the basket-weave round challah, you need 4 pieces.
Stretch each section of dough out into an imperfect rectangle shape, and then use a rolling pin to roll it into a long, oval shape. The dough will be very thin on the counter, and that’s good. Use spray oil to keep it from sticking, or dust the counter with a very light amount of flour. Roll up the oval into a long rope shape, keeping it tight as you roll and pinching the seam to secure it. Roll it out firmly to stretch the rope into an 18″ length, with the ends somewhat tapered from the fuller, center part of the rope. Repeat with the other three pieces and arrange them in a tic-tac-toe shape, with the centers fairly close together (but not tight) and long strands extended in all four directions. Notice the over-under pattern, as this is the important starting position for braiding a round.
One important thing to note is that you do not want the dough strands to be too tightly crossed, either at the start or after braiding. You should be able to wiggle a finger between strands after braiding, and this is important because the dough needs room to expand during proofing; otherwise, it will expand into one large blob and you’ll lose the beautiful pattern.
Shaping the dough is probably best learned through pictures, but I’ll try to describe it here. Take any long strand that is under the piece that crosses it, and sweep it over the piece parallel to it so that its new position is parallel to the cross piece. Repeat with the other four strands. Next, reverse direction but do the same thing, taking the underneath pieces and cross over to make them parallel to the piece next door. Repeat with the other four. Continue this pattern of reverse-crossing until the strands are too small to cross over. At that point, twist and pinch together the ends you would otherwise cross so that the dough doesn’t unravel. Tuck the twisted ends underneath and transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Repeat with the second batch of dough and lightly spray or brush the loaves with olive oil and secure a couple of layers of plastic wrap over them. Keep the plastic somewhat loose, allowing room for rising, but not so much that air can dry out your loaves.
Proof the loaves at warm room temperature for up to 5 hours, until they have at least doubled in size. They will be quite “poofy” when they are ready. Preheat the oven, brush all over with egg wash (get into every nook and cranny) and bake until they are deep golden brown all over, with internal temperature at 200° F.
Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.
Sourdough Challah Round
The braiding technique is the easiest thing about these loaves, which are enriched with eggs, citrus-scented olive oil and sweet honey. The recipe takes time, but the reward is as sweet as my wish for you in the Jewish New Year.
- 35g recently fed sourdough starter
- 80g room temperature water
- 130g bread flour
- 65g warm water
- 65g honey
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 55g olive oil
- 300g bread flour
- 100g white whole wheat flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
- all of the firm starter (above)
- 1 large egg, mixed with a tablespoon of water (for egg wash)
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the water, honey, eggs and oil. Whisk together until fully blended. Add flour ingredients and mix with the dough hook until all flour is incorporated.
- Remove dough from hook, sprinkle with salt and cover. Rest the dough for about 30 minutes, as this will make kneading easier. Rinse all dough bits from the hook so it’s ready for the next kneading step.
- Turn the fermented firm starter out onto a floured countertop. Use a bench scraper to cut the dough into several pieces, toss them in the flour to coat, and then cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel to keep it from drying out.
- After resting, the salt on top of the dough will have dissolved a bit. Knead with the dough hook for a few minutes to fully incorporate the salt, then transfer the dough to a lightly floured countertop.
- Spread the challah dough out to enlarge it, and then press several pieces of the firm starter into it. Fold it up in thirds, like a letter, and press the remaining pieces of firm starter into it. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and knead with the dough hook for several minutes. You should not see any streaks of starter, and the dough should be dense, smooth and shiny. Transfer it to a large, oiled bowl and cover. Let it ferment at room temperature for about 3 hours. It likely will not double in size, but it will expand somewhat.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. Return one half to the bowl and cover to prevent drying while you shape the first loaf.
- Cut the first dough portion into equal parts for braiding, either 3 or 4 pieces. Flatten into rough rectangle/oval shapes and roll up tightly into ropes, pinching to seal the edges. Roll out with the flat part of your palms to stretch the ropes to 18″, with ends that are tapered a bit. 8, Arrange the dough ropes for braiding, following visual instructions in this post. Place braided loaves on parchment-lined baking sheets and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Proofing time will be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, humidity and moon cycle. Just kidding on that last one, but honestly, the time needed for proof can vary broadly, so my best advice is to begin checking after 3 hours. Dough will double or nearly triple in size, and it is ready to egg wash and bake when it refuses to bounce back after a finger poke.
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Gently brush egg wash all over every visible surface of the challah loaves. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until bread is deep golden brown all over. Internal temperature should be about 200° F. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.
From the CDJ archive, here’s another way you can achieve a “round” challah, if you aren’t feeling the love for the basket-weave design. Divide your dough for one of the loaves into three equal segments and braid them like a hair braid, and then curl it around, tucking and pinching to seal the ends together. It’s more of a wreath than a round, but still has the circle symbolism. This was an experimental sourdough pumpkin challah, filled with Trader Joe’s “golden berry blend” dried fruit, and it was nothing short of fabulous. 🙂