Challah Making for Dummies

Challah baking for dummies?  More like challah baking for scaredy cats.

Here’s the thing about this post, my lovelies.  It reflects how much I REALLY LOVE YOU LIKE WOAH.  Because I don’t like measuring things.  And, so, I don’t.  But, for you?  Anything.  So I’ve made this recipe replication-ready by using measuring cups (GASP! Bubbe would be horrified).

“Enough, enough,” you say, “We get it.  YOU LOVE US IN THE FEELINGS.”  So, let’s get to it before we all get cold feet, shall we?

First, please put on something cute.  Cooking is no excuse for bad fashion.  Also, you should have an adorable apron.  Because you don’t want to spill things on that cute outfit of yours, now do you? Next, print out this list and go to the grocery store (or, um, open your cabinets):

Yields 2 large loaves

  • 5 eggs
  • 1/4ish cup of honey (any kind!)
  • 1/4 cup fat (melted butter, olive oil, grape seed oil*)
  • dash of salt
  • 1 1/4 cups liquid (water, orange juice, or milk**)
  • 1 1/2 packets of dry active yeast (I like Fleischmann’s)
  • 5-7 cups of flour
* You can use any kind of fat you like in challah.  Butter makes for a more pastry-like bread with a more intense flavor.  If you’re making a savory challah, olive oil can be nice – particularly if you’re going a garlic/herb route.  If you’re making a pareve (read: neither meat nor dairy in the world of keeping kosher) challah and you don’t want to taste the oil, you can use grape seed oil, which is a magical, mostly tasteless oil.
** You can use a multiplicity of different liquids.  If you’re looking for a richer flavor, use milk.  If you’re looking for a slightly sweet taste, use juice – you can experiment with juice . . . from orange to cranberry to blueberry to pomegranate, depending on the flavor scheme you’re going for.  Juices work well in challah that has dried fruits and/or nuts in it.  If you’re going the savory route, go with water.  Also, if you have halakhic (read: Jewish legal) concerns, go with water so that you can still make the blessing when you separate the dough.
*** We’re not going to get into flavorings in this tutorial.  In later recipes, you’ll see how I incorporate both spices and whole ingredients for flavor.

STEP 1: PREPARATION

Gather one large mixing bowl, measuring cups (1 2-cup or a 1-cup and a 1/4-cup), a medium bowl (and, if you are using butter, a small microwave-safe bowl), a pastry brush (or large paint brush) and all of the ingredients listed in the ingredient list above.

If you have selected butter as your fat, now is a good time to melt it in the microwave so that it will not be so hot as to cook your eggs when you mix it in later on.

STEP 2: ACTIVATE THE TROOPS . . . ERRRR, THE YEAST

Pour 1 1/4 cup of your liquid (water, milk, or juice) into a medium-sized microwave-safe bowl.

Heat the liquid in the microwave for a minute.  When the liquid comes out, it should be warm to the touch but not “oh, $*@%, I burned my finger” hot.

Lightly sprinkle your yeast onto the top of the liquid.  Add one squirt of honey.  Lightly mix/whisk together so the yeast does not clump.

Let sit for 15-20 minutes or until the liquid-yeast mixture gets a nice layer of foam on top (think: a freshly poured Guinness beer).

STEP 3: LIQUID INGREDIENTS, UNITE!

While your yeast activates, crack 4 whole eggs into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1/4 cup of honey.  Now, the honey measurement is an estimate – I usually just fill in the space between two of the egg yolks.  Here’s what I mean (see the dark brown splotch of honey between the two eggs on the right? no? get thee to the optometrist):

If you like sweeter bread, add more honey.

Add 1/4 cup of fat (butter or oil).  Add a dash of salt (if you’re really a wimp, I guess you can measure out a 1/2 teaspoon).  Whisk together.

Once your yeast is ready, pour the yeast/liquid mixture into the rest of the wet ingredients and whisk gently to incorporate.  Here’s what your yeast may look like when it’s “ready” to be poured:

STEP 4: GET DOWN WITH YOUR GLUTEN-Y SELF (AKA: ADD FLOUR)

Start adding flour.  You can either add 2 cups at a time until you’ve formed a ball of dough that easily lifts up out of the bowl.  Ooooor . . . for the more intrepid bakers amongst you, you can do what I do.  For the first round of flour, I cover the surface of the wet ingredients with a 1-inch-ish high layer of flour.  I mix.  I continue doing this until my dough has formed.  I tend to use my hand to incorporate the flour.  You can use a wooden spoon (until you get to the point where the spoon won’t move – then use your hand).  

                 

You’ll know the dough is sufficiently floured when mixing it leaves very little residue on your hand.  A video!

 

STEP 5: BEND AND SNAP (OR, UM, KNEADING)

Time to knead!  You can do this for 8 minutes or 20 – depends on how much stress eating you did before you started this process and how soon you need to be able to wear something sleeveless.  The way I knead is to punch and twist, as demonstrated in the video above.  You can also just punch punch punch for a while.  That’s fun!  And aggressive!

STEP 6: FIRST RISE (NOTE: THIS IS NOT THE SAME AS THE FIRST COMING . . . OF THE LORD)

Once you have sufficiently kneaded your dough, set the blob on the counter, wash out your large mixing bowl, grease it, and put the blob of dough back in.  Turn the blob of dough over so it has a thin sheen of oil all over it (and, therefore, will not stick to the bowl).  

If you’re not doing the overnight rise shabang, you have two options.  Option 1: turn your oven on to 100 degrees . . . turn it off once it reaches 100 degrees . . . put the bowl of dough inside to rise for an hour.  Option 2: turn your oven on to 200ish degrees and put the bowl on top of the stove (if your oven and stove are connected) to rise for 1 hour.  If you’re squeamish about unwanted particles getting into your bowl ‘o dough, cover it with a towel, if you’ve left it on top of the stove.  DO NOT PUT A TOWEL IN THE OVEN.  Unless you want to burn the house down.  Then definitely put a towel in the oven.

NOTE: If you leave your dough to rise overnight in the fridge and then you open the fridge and it hasn’t risen, don’t cry on top of the challah.  You’ll ruin it.  Instead, follow the directions above to let it rise for an hour in a warm, dark place/punch down/rise/blahblahblah.

STEP 7: DEALING WITH AGGRESSION TOWARDS INLAWS (OR, UM, PUNCHING DOWN) AND THE SECOND RISE

Look at your big bowl o’ dough.  Has it doubled in size?  If it has, it will look like this (notice how it has now covered the entire bowl):

If not, let it rise for another 15-30 minutes.  If so, you’re ready to punch down.  This is literally what the name suggests: you punch.it.down.  When you first stick your fist in to the ball of dough, you’ll notice there’s a lot of air in there and it just magically goes down (sorry for the weird-disappearing-first picture).  

Keep doing this until it is once again a solid ball of dough.  Once that’s the case, put it back in the oven/on top of the stove and let it rise for another half hour.

STEP 8: GIVING YOUR DOUGH A HAIRDO (OR, UM, BRAIDING)

First, you need to divide your big bowl of dough into as many balls as the number of challahs you want to make.

(For the mathematically challenged – If you want to make two challahs, divide the big ball into two balls.  If you want to make three challahs, divide the big ball into three balls.  If you want to make four challahs and you’re still not sure what you need to do, BACK AWAY FROM THE KITCHEN.  You probably should not be touching hot things.)

If you’re a wimp, take one ball and divide it into three small balls.  Roll these balls into strands and braid them together.  If you don’t know how to do a three-strand braid, I’m sure you can find a video on youtube.  I will not dignify your “knowledge gap” with my own google search.  J/K.  J/K.  We all have to learn some time.  There are no dump questions.  Except for the dumb questions.  Or something.

If you’re A ROCKSTAR, divide one of your big balls into six little balls (all even in size).  Roll these balls into strands (snakes).  Now get your six-strand braid on.  I’m going to direct you to this video (for the less computer-savvy amongst you, click the word video – HI MOM!) to learn how.  Why reinvent the wheel by making my own video?  She does such a good job.  As mentioned previously, I recommend watching this video once before you get started and then watching/pausing/watching as you go.  It should look like this (minus the flavorings I used in this particular braid):

STEP 9: THE THIRD RISE (I’M RUNNING OUT OF CLEVER TAGLINES)

Once you’ve braided all your little pretty challahs, put them on your baking sheet to rise for 30 minutes.  I recommend using a silpat on top of a baking sheet (you don’t have to grease if you go this route).  If you do not have one of these . . . you should.  Go get one.  Other potential don’t-burn-the-bottom-of-your-challah solutions include placing a large sprayed-with-cooking-spray baking sheet on top of a smaller pan with a little bit of water in the bottom.  Or you could live on the wild side and simply used a greased baking sheet.  I cannot guarantee this won’t yield a less-than-desirably-colored-bottom, but you didn’t follow directions.  So there!

Now is a good time to pre-heat your oven to 350° F.  (Dear Canadians: I don’t believe that Celsius is actually a thing.  Figure out the conversion on your own.)

STEP 10: GIVING YOUR CHALLAH A BATH ‘N BAKE

Crack your remaining egg into a small bowl and whisk it.  Paint an egg wash onto your challahs.  Put your challahs in the oven. I recommend setting the timer for 28 minutes initially and checking on them 2/3s of the way through.  You know challah is done when you thump the bottom and hear a hollow sound (and you don’t see gooey dough when you gently press your finger into one of the cracks on top).  If after 28 minutes you’re not quite done (don’t go by the golden brown top), keep baking for 3ish minutes at a time.  Don’t bake for more than 35 minutes.  Really.  You’ll end up with dry challah.  And that’s a CRIME, yo.

Ten steps seems like an even number, so I’m going to stop there.  If you’re not sure what to do next, let me help you: EAT THESE SUCKERS.  They’re delicious warm.  Just make sure to break into them away from your face so you don’t get a steam burn.  And, remember, blow first – nobody likes a tongue burn.

If you’re as vain as I, you’ll probably want to take a cute picture of yourself holding your creations before you destroy them.

ENJOY!

Happy Birthday, Blog!

Welcome to the world, Challah Blog.  And, um, welcome to the Challah Blog, World.

After several months of posting pictures of my weekly challah creations on the Facebookz, I decided it was time to expand my horizons on the interwebs.  Also, if we’re really doing it up true confessions style, I’ll be honest that it seemed a heck of a lot easier to throw requested recipes up on a website than to leave them in a Facebook comment.  Plus, I’m hoping to get famous.  You know, like JLo.  Or Milli Vanilli.  And I’m relatively positive that a blog about challah is the way to achieve that goal.

So, here we are.  At my new internet home.  Where I will delight you with my sense of humor, my baking skillz, and perhaps even some Jewish learning (GASP!).  Let’s not waste time, kids: onto the challah.

In honor of the secular new year, I decided to get all crazy-like this week and make a butternut squash challah with caramelized onions and fontina.  This challah was largely inspired by the fabulous galette from Smitten Kitchen that has made so many tummies happy on so many Shabbes evenings in my apartment.  Why not make the whole flavor concept into a loaf of bread!?  As my mother pointed out, this was like a whole meal in a challah!

Are you having a panic attack just thinking about making such a thing?  Deep breaths, my pretty.  I felt the same way two months ago.  Instead of diving into the deep end, let’s dip our toes in the kiddy pool, eh?

Since you’re all “Oh my gosh.  I could never.  I NEED A COCKTAIL.  My yeast will never activate. My bread will be like a sinking Titanic.  I NEED A COCKTAIL,” (am I projecting here?) I’m going to attempt to allay some of your fears by sharing some of my basic bread-baking wisdom.  Because I get you, tender birds.  That whole “DISASTER! DISASTER!” feeling is how I felt for the longest time.  And then I poured myself a cocktail and took a chance.  And challah and I have been happily united ever since.  So, put on your grown up pants, pour yourself an adult beverage (or, um, some sparkling cider), and LISTEN UP (I’m bossy)!

From my first Facebook note about challah baking:

“First things first, if you’re thinking, “But I just liked a pretty picture, I could NEVER bake challah,” I hear and validate your fears.  However!  I’m here to tell you it can be done.  I spent 28 years being scared of challah – which is approximately 28 years too long.  Don’t be afraid.  Just make sure your dry active yeast isn’t dead and therefore won’t bubble (ahem), and then you’re golden.  Also, I like to let my yeasties roll around for at least 15-20 minutes to get a good foam going.

So, I’m a novice of novices (we’re on week #2 week 8 of this challah-baking kick) – though I am a frequent cook, as you probably know if you’re reading this note – BUT! I will say this . . . the key to good challah?  Making your dough the night before and letting it rise in the fridge overnight!  Seriously, y’all.  It’s worth having to clean flour off your counter twice.  Also, it cuts the time of this project in like . . . major more than half.  You whip up your dough, you throw it in the fridge, you get 8 hours of sleep (read: 3 hours of sleep, 5 hours working on your thesis), you wake up and knead/braid, and then you throw it in the oven and go back to thesisthesisthesis (or whatever you real, non-student types do).  AGAIN: DOUGH. IN. FRIDGE. RISING. OVER. NIGHT.  [EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re not making it the night before, while you’re doing the first rise, turn your oven on to 100 and then turn it off and put the bowl inside – warm, dark places help with rising.]  If you want to do a 6-strand braid (and you should . . . they’re beautiful), here’s the most straight forward link to how to do it.  I recommend watching it once before you braid and then watching it AS you braid.  By the second time you do this, you won’t need the video.  Now, recipes . . .”

Let’s add some other thoughts to this:

1.) You do not need a bread machine or a stand mixer (are those the same thing? sometimes I’m dumb . . . ) to make challah.  In fact, if you use one, I’ll probably judge you.  That Big Dude in the Sky gave you two hands.  USE THEM.  Plus, by telling you to knead with your hands, I’m actually saving you a ton of money.  That fancy kick boxing class you’ve been taking?  Yeah, you can quit.  Just spend a good 20 minutes punching dough each week and your biceps will be strapless-dress-ready in no time.  Or, um, whatever dudes wear.

2.) Be fearless!  Just repeat, “This will work because I am awesome.”  I would say this is actually really good life advice in any situation.  If you can’t beat ’em, fool ’em (so rabbinic, I know – I’m sure Rashi said this somewhere).

3.) For the mess-averse amongst us, this can be a three bowl or two-bowl-and-one-measuring-cup shabang.  Use one big bowl as your base.  Have another medium size bowl in which to activate your yeast in liquid.  Have measuring cup to measure your oil or a third microwave-safe bowl in which to melt your butter.

4.) If this is going to be, like, a thing for you – this challah baking, always keep at least a dozen eggs in your fridge, several honey varietals, and a massive bag of flour or two in your kitchen.

5.) For the Tribe Members amongst you, remember that this is a sacred responsibility.  Baking challah can be a truly spiritual activity.  There is a teaching that you can bake challah in someone’s merit – so you could say tehillim (read: psalms) for someone in your life who is sick as you bake your challah.  Or you could just reflect on the week gone by.  Or you could listen to Shabbes (read: Day of Rest) music and meditate.  Or you could get rowdy and pour yourself a large cocktail (what, that’s not a spiritual experience?!).  Just a thought . . .

So, now that we all feel better, I’m going to post a recipe.

Ready . . . set . . . BAKE!