Monday, February 8, 2016

Challah in the Family

Despite the lack of actual snow thus far, today is a snow day for my kids, so naturally I’m looking for projects to keep them out of trouble. With the Superbowl yesterday and a snowstorm predicted for this morning, I had avoided the grocery store, and as a result we are very low on bread. (Being low on bread is also a result of the fact that both of my children have learned how to open a bread bag but only one of them has learned how to close a bread bag. But that’s another blog for another day.) So why not kill two birds with one stone and bake bread? 

I have several delicious family recipes for oatmeal-molasses breads, but I was in the mood for something lighter. As I browsed through some online recipes, it occurred to me that I had seen a photograph of a friend and her son baking challah the other day. Perfect! I found a recipe for challah that claimed to be easy and kid-friendly, and I got to it. 

Experience has taught me to always begin by gathering my ingredients, to make sure I’m not out of anything crucial. For this recipe, you need yeast, warm water, honey, salt, eggs, and flour. 

Break three of the eggs into a small bowl and beat them slightly with a fork, then set them aside. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast and the water. The water should be warm enough to activate the yeast but not so hot that it will kill it. Hand washing temperature is just about right.

Stir with a wooden or plastic spoon until the yeast is dissolved. (I was always taught never to use metal bowls or utensils when working with yeast. I have no idea if that’s true or an old wives’ tale, but until I know for sure, better safe than sorry.)

Next, stir in the honey and then the salt, and stir until thoroughly dissolved. 

Stir in the eggs until well mixed. This stage looks exceptionally unappealing, but hang in there. It’ll get much nicer looking soon.

Now gradually add the flour. I find that a wire whisk works well for the first few cups until the batter gets somewhat stiff. Then change back to a large plastic or wooden spoon.

The dough should begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Don’t worry about scraping all the flour off the sides of the bowl; you’ll be adding more flour as you need, and you can use the same bowl for rising, so the remaining flour will help prevent sticking.  

Sprinkle a large wooden or plastic cutting board with flour. I like to use my metal scraper to spread out a generous layer of flour for kneading.

Plop the dough in the middle of your floured board and begin kneading. (I apologize for the lack of kneading photos – challah dough is on the sticky side, and it’s very difficult to take photos with challah dough stuck all over your fingers! Speaking of sticky dough, be sure to remove any rings before kneading, or you’ll be picking gunk out of the settings for weeks.) 

If you’ve never kneaded bread before, it’s very easy. Take the circle of dough and fold it in half, pulling the top towards you. Push down in the center of the half-circle with the heel of your hand, pushing slightly away from you. This will “seal” the flap of dough you just created. Turn the dough a quarter-turn and repeat. If the dough begins to stick to the board (or your hands), sprinkle a little more flour on the board underneath the dough (or onto the top surface of the dough). You may end up working in quite a bit of extra flour. Try to avoid making the dough too dry, though – too much flour will make the bread tough. Use just enough that the dough doesn’t stick to everything. 

Bread recipes usually say to knead the bread until “smooth and elastic.” I must be a weak kneader, because it always takes me a longer time to reach this stage than the recipe suggests. But don’t worry, you can definitely tell when you reach that stage. The dough tends to look a bit gooey and cellulite-y, then all of a sudden it becomes smooth and bounces back against itself instead of sinking together as you knead. 

Once you reach this stage, flip the ball of dough over and pop it back into the large mixing bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel or cloth napkin and leave it in a warm place to rise. If you have an oven with a “proof” setting (or any way to set the temperature to about 100 degrees), that’s ideal. If not, the top of your refrigerator or anywhere near a heat vent will work. Allow the dough to rise for about 2 hours, or until roughly doubled in size.


Although the dough is covered, if you’re using a good-sized mixing bowl, you can tell when the dough is doubled because it will begin to lift the towel. The top of the dough will be puffy and smooth.

Now comes the fun part: Using your fist, punch the middle of the ball of dough to deflate it. Then scrunch it together into a lumpy ball, tip it out onto your cutting board, and use your scraper or a sharp knife to divide it into three roughly even parts.

Stretch and roll each section of dough to form three equal-length cylinders, about 12-15” in length. Holds the strands together at one end and gently braid them together to form the traditional challah shape. (This recipe makes a rather small loaf, so a three-stranded braid works best. For larger loaves, a 5-strand braid looks nicer and results in a better-proportioned loaf.) Tuck the ends under when finished, then transfer the loaf to a cookie sheet. (I sprayed mine with cooking spray, just to be on the safe side, but I don’t think I needed it.)

Separate the last egg, setting aside the white. Break up the yolk and use your fingers or a pastry brush to generously coat the top and sides of the loaf.

Bake the loaf at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes. Check for doneness at 35 minutes. The crust should be firm and golden brown. Allow to cool before slicing, and enjoy!

Easy Challah
1 pkg dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1-1/2 Tbsp honey
1 tsp salt
3 eggs plus 1 additional egg yolk
3-1/2 cups flour plus extra for kneading 

Break three eggs into a small bowl. Beat slightly with a fork and set aside. 

Put the warm water and yeast into a large mixing bowl. Stir until dissolved. Add honey and salt and stir until completely dissolved. Add the beaten eggs and stir in.

Add the flour a little at a time, stirring into the liquid. The dough will be quite sticky. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for about 5 minutes. Return to the mixing bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rise in a warm place for 2 hours, or until roughly doubled in size. 

Punch down the dough and return to floured board. Divide into three equal sections and roll into equal length cylinders, about 12-15” in length. Braid the cylinders together, tucking ends underneath when finished. Transfer to a cookie sheet.  

Separate the remaining egg and use the yolk to coat the loaf, using either a pastry brush or your fingers. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until crust is firm and golden. Allow to cool before slicing.

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