The first time I made challah I nearly cried. Ok, not nearly. I full-fledged cried. I was expecting instant success because I did everything right. However, I was left with dense (in a bad way), crumbly (in a bad way), tasteless (is there a good way?!) poor excuses for braided bread undeserving of being called "challah". I was traumatized for a bit and swore off the whole thing because, frankly, I don't handle failure all that well.
My sister, Goldie, makes the most amazing challah known to man and eventually after watching her make it a few times, I decided to take another stab at it. Success!! They weren't gorgeous and I needed some practice but they earned their way into my heart and I felt like I could finally do this. Finally! Fluffy, sweet goodness! This is her killer recipe. Thanks Goldie!!
Few things in the kitchen are more intimidating than working with yeast. It kinda smells weird and if you haven't worked with it, it can be hard to tell what's right and what's not. There's fresh and there's dried and there are those packet thingies. Rapid rising, active dry, instant. Ahhh!! Take a deep breath, I got your back. Let's walk through this.
Active dry yeast is what's used in this recipe. It's granular and is alive but not actively growing until it's proofed in warm water. Instant or rapid rising dry yeast is more finely granulated and is therefore more easily proofed. Some recipes call for mixing yeast right in with the dry ingredients. That's when you'd use instant or rapid rising dry yeast. Technically, they can be subbed for one another but since the instant yeast is more finely granulated, there is more yeast per tablespoon, so decrease the amount by 20%. Dry yeast lasts a very long time. I buy a large package from my supermarket and store in a zip top bag in my freezer. Fresh yeast needs to be proofed as well, but since it is highly perishable, I stick with the active dry.
Now let's talk about flours. Is there really a difference between high gluten and all purpose flour? Yes. Gluten is what gives baked goods their structure. All purpose flour contains about 8-11% gluten whereas high gluten flour contains 12-15%. Here's the good news, you can use either flour for this recipe and it will still come out great! How? I don't know. Magic or something like that. I prefer not to question it. Another magical tidbit. My sister (same one as before.. the one who developed this recipe) uses 6 lbs high gluten flour, buuuuuut it works great for me when i use just 5 lbs.
Let's get to it, shall we?
Contrary to the name of this blog, this is NOT a time to cook with tantrums. Unless you're one of those patient creatures I've heard about. If you're human, wait until the kids are in bed, pour yourself a glass of wine and focus. Pre-measure all of your ingredients so you don't have to fumble around measuring things while your hands are covered in flour or sticky dough. Rubber gloves are a Godsend. Dough doesn't stick as much to them and you won't be cleaning out dough from under your fingernails for a week. You can thank me later for that tip.
The first step is proofing the yeast in warm water with a bit of sugar. Why do we do this? Because as mentioned previously, yeast is living and we want to make sure it is still active and living. One might say.. we want.. proof. Yeah, sorry, moving on. We are looking for the yeast to foam up. If the yeast does not foam up, it is no longer living or active and the only waste is warm water and a bit of sugar. Time to start over with new yeast. How warm should the water be? About 100°F, or in mom-speak, the temperature of a baby's bath. Not too hot, not too cool, Goldilox approved. Why sugar? Because sugar feeds the yeast and helps it grow. Combine the yeast, warm water and sugar in a glass bowl, give it a stir and set a timer for 10 minutes to allow it to proof. You know what they say.. a watched yeast bowl never proofs.
While the yeast is proofing, mix the dry ingredients in a
large gigantic bowl. Although the recipe calls for a specific amount of flour, don't use it all right away. Save some on the side to add into the dough later, if it's too sticky to work with as you knead. Better to add flour later than to start off with too much flour. Incorporate the wet ingredients, aside from the yeast mixture. When it gets too difficult to mix with a utensil, get in there with your hands and mix some more.
After 10 proofing minutes are up, your yeast will look like this.
Add the yeast mixture and continue mixing by hand until the ingredients are all well incorporated.
Now it's time to knead. Pour the contents of your bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Press the heel of your hand into the dough, pushing down and forward slightly. Fold the dough over and onto itself and repeat the pushing down and forward movement. Rotate the dough slightly and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And a few more times as kneaded (Ha!) until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Return the kneaded ball of dough to your gigantic mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Sing it a lullaby and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to allow the dough to rise for an hour and a half. About as long as it takes to calm a toddler whose toast was cut the wrong way.
Remove the bowl from hibernation. This is when we "take challah" or do Hafrasha. We recite the following Bracha and then pinch off a portion of dough, about the size of an egg.
ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וציונו להפריש חלה מן העסה
Baruch ata Adonoy, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu bimitzvo'sav, vitzivanu lihafrish challah min ha-issa.
Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.
This is a very spiritual moment in which many pray for the health and prosperity of others and for their own families. The portion of dough, which represents the portion of dough that was given to the Kohanim in the time of the Bais Hamikdash, is wrapped in foil and burnt or disposed of respectfully. There are different customs as to how it should be done. Please adhere to your own.
Now we portion and braid. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a video.) I get 6 medium sized challahs from one batch. You can make 4 or 5 larger sized challahs or 7-8 smaller sized challahs or make some challahs and some rolls. Divide your dough as you wish and then divide each ball of dough into as many strands as you wish to braid, you guessed it, as you wish 🙂 Lightly coat the strands in flour and then braid. Allow to rise about 10 minutes and then egg wash and top with sesame seeds. Bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes. Time varies depending upon the size of your challahs. Rolls will bake considerably quicker than a full-sized challah. These freeze beautifully. Just cool completely after baking and seal very well in large zip top bags and freeze. Defrost as needed.
- 4 Tbsp active dry yeast
- 5 cups warm water
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 5 lbs high gluten flour + more as needed
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 Tbsp salt
- 3 eggs
- ¼ cup honey
- 1¼ cup vegetable oil
- Combine dry yeast, warm water and 2 Tbsp sugar in a glass bowl and set aside to proof 10 minutes.
- In a very large bowl, combine almost all of the flour with 1 cup sugar and 2 tbsp salt. Add the eggs, honey and oil. Mix well.
- Once the yeast is proofed, add to the flour mixture and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated. Transfer dough to working surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour as needed.
- Return the dough to the large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Set aside to rise for 1 hour and 30 minutes in a warm, draft-free spot.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Uncover the dough and "take challah" then portion and braid your challahs. Allow to rise 10 minutes then egg wash, sprinkle toppings and bake about 45 minutes.
- Allow to cool completely before storing.