Challah for the New Year
September 7, 2018
Whether you are celebrating the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah or merely want to enjoy a delicious treat, the smell of challah baking in the oven is worth every bit of the effort it takes to make your own. And I really should know, as I have baked upwards of 20 loaves in the past few weeks in my quest to create my version of the perfect loaf.
I began by taking popular recipes and baking them as printed. One had the most perfect texture, another was the most beautiful, and still another had the ideal taste. Thus began the tinkering that resulted in the following recipe. It was a process with more research and even more loaves along the way. I will still not profess to being any kind of authority, but I have tried to educate myself enough to give you a great result without too much stress.
Challah is one of those dishes that lends itself to each family having their own recipe. So if you are one of those, with a family recipe that you make every year, I can at least share with you what I have learned in the process and perhaps you will apply one or two of these tricks to your own recipe.
The Scoop on Challah:
The yeast: I prefer active not instant. Instant is designed for one long rise, but since flavor is gained with each rise of the dough, I prefer the former.
The flour itself: all-purpose is always on hand, but bread flour provides the most reliable shape as its higher protein content allows the bread to retain its shape better during the rises.
Measuring the flour: more reliable by scale unless you are very comfortable with what the finished consistency of your dough should feel like. Put a bowl on your scale, zero the scale and proceed.
The rise: The key is giving the dough a nice warm spot where it can rise, and then leaving it until it has truly doubled in bulk. I like to use my cool oven. By leaving the light on, I provide just enough warmth to create an ideal proofing box.
The second rise: This punch down of the dough after the initial hour when it is nearly doubled in bulk really makes a difference in the flavor of the finished product. Do not skip this important step.
Shaping: My dear friend, Scarsdale challah maven, Ruth S., offers the following tips for shaping: After braiding, turn the ends under. If loaf looks long and thin, place your hands on each end and squish lightly with palms to create a shorter, plumper shape.
The egg wash:a la Joan Nathan…two egg washes create a gorgeous deep brown lacquered crust. So brush not once but twice: when you first form the loaves and after they rise and are about to go into the oven. Be extra diligent on the second brushing, especially in the crevices.
Baking: I prefer a 350^F oven. It is easier not to overcook the loaves and keep the delicious moist texture of a quintessential challah. Baking on a silpat sheet prevents the bottom from burning.
Make ahead tip: the dough can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before any of the rises. When you remove it from the refrigerator, add an extra 30 minutes to return the dough to room temperature before proceeding with the rise.
Adapted loosely from Joan Nathan
1 ½ packages active dry yeast (1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup canola oil, plus more for greasing bowl
4 large eggs, plus 1 more for the egg wash
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
81/4 to 8 ½ cups all-purpose flour or bread flour (about 1100 grams)
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading.)
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that is turned off but with the light kept on. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
To make a 3-braid challah: take half the dough and form it into 3 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 15-inches-long and 1 ½- inches-wide. Place the 3 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together, placing the middle strand on top of the other two. Move the outside right strand over the middle strand. Then take the strand on the left and move it over the center. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. Tuck the ends underneath. Sometimes the top of the braid can look very bulbous, don’t be afraid to separate the top of the strands (just an inch or two) and re-braid. Make a second loaf the same way.
For a high-rising spiral: wind the dough tightly around on the prepared sheet, without leaving any space between the loops, and be sure that the last loop is bound with a bit of tension. This will force the dough to rise in the center as it is proofing and especially during the oven rise.
Place the shaped loaves on a cookie sheet covered with parchment or Silpat with at least 2 inches in between. Beat remaining egg with a pinch of salt and brush it on loaves, and let rise another hour. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 350 degrees and brush loaves again. Bake in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool loaves on a rack.
Makes two generous-size challahs.