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!

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