Baking and eating challah has been a special tradition to me for as long as I can remember. In each one of the homes and communities I have been apart of, I can recall the distinct nature of the challah served there. My earliest memory of challah was at the shul where my father worked until I was 5. We would spend most Friday nights there for Kabbalat Shabbat. When the service was over, my brother and I would race to the door to be the first to snag the challah that awaited in baskets on the tables in the lobby. The challah was eggy, and sliced thin, with a dark, shiny crust and soft, deepyellow interior. We would dip it into the tiny cups of grape juice handed to us and hope it would hold us over for the long wait until Shabbat dinner was served.
I have many more memories of challah. The soft, round rolls that always await me at my grandparents’ house when we come to visit, topped with onion and sesame seeds, fresh from the kosher bakery. The challah that friends and I purchased on the streets of Jerusalem on Friday morning, sold by a man and his wife behind a small table (food sold on the street like that, with no health code approval, would never fly in America, and that was part of this challah’s novelty.) The challah was sweet, wrapped in brown wax paper, its top gleaming with a drizzle of honey. More recently, the challah my mother baked through my teenage years using any and all flours she could find- almond, cashew, oat, buckwheat, whole wheat…you get the picture. These loaves, althoughthey didn’t look like your average challah, had the sweet and nutty flavor that paired with just about anything and was highly addictive. And finally, the challot I have begun to bake myself over the past two years using a friend’s recipe and now beginning to put my own spin on with just some minor ingredient changes.
What I love about baking challah is that, like Shabbat, it forces you to take time out of your normal schedule and set it aside for something purely good, like creating a nourishing food to share with others. That is the beauty in baking and the secret behind real good challah.
This recipe was adapted from my family friend Howard. I substituted coconut oil for canola, honey for most of the white sugar, and used whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose. Otherwise, the recipe is the same- and for good reason, it is the BEST challah! Do note that I would not recommend nixing the bread flour completely- without it, the challah looses its fluffiness and will not rise as much.
NOTE: Do not be intimidated by the recipe length! It is long for clarity- most of this recipe is spent waiting for challah to rise. ANYONE can make this challah!
RECIPE: makes two large challot (enough for 20 people)
4.5 teaspoons of bottled active yeast
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup honey
1/8 cup sugar
1 ¾ cups water SLIGHTLY north of lukewarm. Too hot will impair the yeast, too cold and it will not rise.
1 Tbsp. salt
2 cups of Whole Wheat Flour
4 cups of Bread Flour
1 egg (for egg wash)
Golden Raisins & Cinnamon (optional)
Sesame Seeds (optional)
In a large bowl, add yeast, cover with sugar and honey, and drizzle the warm water. Whisk briefly and let sit 20 minutes. Once ready, you will be able to smell the yeast.
Into the bowl with the yeast, add the 3 eggs, coconut oil, and salt. Whisk so it is combined.
Now time for the flour! Grab a rubber (non-sticky) spatula. Add in 1 cup bread flour, 1 cup wheat flour, 1 cup bread flour. Stir until just combined (flour not completely incorporated.)
Now, the second round of flour. Again, add in 1 cup bread flour, 1 cup wheat flour, 1 cup bread flour.
Mix until a wet, sticky dough forms. If you want to add cinnamon and raisins, now is your time! I recommend 1/2-3/4 cup of raisins and some generous shakes of cinnamon. Remember, this is making two challot. You should divide the dough in half at this point. (I use a kitchen scale so they are somewhat equal, but eyeballing will work. This is supposed to be fun!) Then turn onto a very well-floured countertop. I like to set aside an extra 1/2 cup of flour (wheat or all-purpose) at this point because my dough tends to be very wet. Being to knead the dough, making sure the liquid absorbs as much flour as possible. To knead the dough, press down with the heel of your hand and continue to fold and turn the dough over with each press. Kneading will come naturally as you try to make the dough less wet. The dough will stick to your hands a lot- that is ok. Keep adding flour, but you shouldn’t have to exceed 1/2 cup. Just keep moving the dough around with the heel of your palm (this can take 5-7 minutes sometimes.)
When the dough is elastic and not sticking to your hands anymore, form it into a ball by tucking the ends underneath. Repeat with the other half of dough.
Prepare two large mixing bowls by either spraying them with non-stick cooking spray or adding a few teaspoons of canola oil to the bowl and then spreading it around with your fingers. Make sure to cover the entire inside of the bowl with oil (you will be amazed by how much the challah grows!)
Place each ball of dough in its bowl. Now take two large sheets of paper towel and wet them slightly. Then ring them out so you have two damp paper towels. Cover each bowl loosely with paper towel (this helps the challah retain its moisture and rise better.) Set aside for two hours (might need shorter/longer depending on how warm your kitchen is) and let the magic happen! The dough will double in size.
After the rise, dump the risen dough onto your counter top (doesn’t need to be floured this time, although I find that very lightly floured hands help the challah strands retain their shape when braiding.
For instructions on braiding, see a YouTube videos. It’s difficult to explain. I like doing four-strand braids since these challot are so big. It helps them stay tight when baking. Here is one I like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PFiOj1oaX8. Remember, you are making two challot, so feel free to experiment.
Prepare two baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Place your braided challot on them and preheat the oven to 350. While the oven is preheating, let your challot rise 30 minutes.
For the egg wash, beat one egg with a splash of water and brush on the risen challot. Now is the time to add toppings- cinnamon sugar, sesame seeds, etc.
Now time to bake! Pop those challot in the oven for at least 30 minutes, rotating them halfway through for even cooking and browning. When the challot are done, they will be golden brown on top and bottom. I often make these Thursday night and let them cool while I sleep. When I wake up in the morning, I put them in extra large zip locks so they don’t dry out. 30 minutes before the Shabbat meal, I pop them in the oven at 250 to warm up.
If you got this far in the recipe, mazel tov! I would love to see your challot. Please share by tagging #gabseatsgreens on Instagram.
Wishing you all many lovely Shabbats and delicious challot!