My ultimate challah

By | April 22, 2012

This recipe and story originally appeared in the April 16, 2012 edition of “From Tali’s Kitchen,” my biweekly cooking column in Binah magazine.

I was hot on the trail of the perfect challah.

I knew what it should taste like: soft without being doughy, substantial without being too heavy, golden with the warmth of whole wheat.

And I knew what it should look like: pretty strands braided with ease, baked to perfection, decorated with sesame seeds or poppy seeds or even whole oat flakes…

So I knew what I wanted. I just didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to get there.

I was 17 when I promised myself that I would bake challahs for my future family as often as possible.

I was a senior in high school, and my classmates and I had begun the much-awaited Jewish Life Cycle course that fall. We were excited about the class because it meant we’d get to talk (and learn) about dating. Ironically, I can’t recall a thing our principal covered in the dating unit (I’m sorry, Mrs. Jacoby!).

All I remember is the challah workshop.

That was the first time I had heard of the concept of davening while you knead challah dough. Davening that your kids’ carpools arrive on time, davening that your teenagers hear their alarm clocks, davening that you and your husband see the good in each other. Although it may be more common to daven for “the biggies” (good health, shidduchim, and parnassah), no request is too small.

My challah doughs have had all sorts of tefillot kneaded into them: Requests that my husband get a tremp home without too long of a wait, that our foray into Shabbos hosting goes well, that filling out U.S. tax forms from abroad goes smoothly.

The printed seder hafrashat challah sheet that I received after that twelfth-grade challah workshop sat on my bookshelf in Maryland for a few years, then came with me on aliyah. Today, it’s kept next to my cookbook collection in the kitchen, where after seven years, it’s finally being put to use.

I don’t come from a baking family. So not only had I never made challah before I got married, I had also never watched anyone else make challah.

There would have to be a learning curve. And I was prepared to learn.

In the first 15 months of our marriage, we sampled about that many challah recipes. I tried (you ready for this?) water challahs and egg challahs, I used whole eggs, just yolks, and just whites. I made doughs that were 100% whole wheat, two-thirds whole wheat, and a scant 25% whole wheat. I baked challahs that called for white sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, honey, and applesauce. I added vanilla extract, cinnamon, chocolate chips, maple syrup, and craisins (no, not all at the same time). I made recipes with hot water, warm water, and water from the faucet. I braided before and after letting the dough rise. I let the dough rise once, twice, and even three times, sometimes on the counter, sometimes in the oven, and sometimes directly under our heating unit.

There were lots of nice challahs along the way. But somehow, there was always something missing. Either it tasted great but the dough was a nightmare to work with, or the dough came together beautifully, but the taste was only so-so.

I should mention that for about the first year, our challahs were a joint effort. I only dealt with the actual dough –- once it had risen, my husband took over.

Happily, he proved himself quite adept at challah braids with three, four, five, and six strands. As a newlywed, I was often overwhelmed just by making Shabbos for the two of us, so I was grateful to him for taking on that portion of the project.

Eventually, all the trial and error, all the experimenting, and all the advice-seeking yielded my ultimate challah.

This recipe is based on the one my cousin Aviva uses, and it fits my criteria about as well as I could hope. When she gave me her recipe, she warned that it never comes out exactly the same way –- and it’s true.

It might be the weather, it might be the brands you’re using, it might even be your mood at the time. All I can tell you is that it’s delicious, even if not completely predictable.

This period right after Pesach is perfect for filling your freezer with a new batch of homemade challahs. Double or triple the recipe, and you’ll be all set for weeks at a time. For me, the ideal Shabbos meal always begins with homemade challah.

Watch your guests’ eyes as the challah cover is lifted, and you’ll see that eagerness, the happy anticipation of a delicious meal to come. (I see it every time. Love it.)

Because when a Shabbos seuda starts with a golden homemade challah, you just know that everything else will fall into place.

Note: You might have seen me talking here about finding the perfect challah. That one was good, too — but I like this one even more.


11 Comments

Meg @ Peaches and Cake on April 25, 2012 at 5:57 pm.

You’ve perfected it! congrats!!

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Ahuvah Taub on May 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm.

Made this challah recipe with the kids. Can’t wait to taste this yummy challah. The whole house smells super yummy. Love the fact that it’s a water challah so if the kids eat some dough (and they do) it’s cool.

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Rachel K on June 21, 2012 at 11:49 am.

Don’t know what I did wrong! I make challah all the time (never made without eggs) and tried this – but the dough didn’t rise! And I guess because it didn’t rise it only yielded two challahs (and one tiny roll, which I made for my husband to taste, and he said it was very good). But I’m still confused. Any advice?

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Tali Simon on June 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm.

I’ve had my share of dough-rising problems, even after a good stretch of successful batches. The two things needed for a proper rise are good yeast and the right temperature in the bowl. Could your yeast be too old? (That’s happened to me before.) Was it warm enough for the dough to rise where you left the bowl? You may need to use the warm oven trick even in the summer.

I don’t think it’s the eggs, since there are lots and lots of water challahs out there that have no problem rising.

As for the yield, I estimated that a batch makes 4 medium loaves, but this will depend on what a person considers to be medium. I can always get 4 medium-ish ones out of it (they get bigger during that second rising, so looking small right after braiding is fine).

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Rachel Kaye on June 26, 2012 at 3:58 pm.

Thanks! Will keep in mind for next time. By the way, they were delicious despite my dough-rising issues.

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Rachel K on October 1, 2012 at 7:37 pm.

I tried it again, and since the, this is my favorite challah recipe! It’s a hit every time . Thanks!

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Tali Simon on October 1, 2012 at 10:54 pm.

So glad!

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Ailuy on January 30, 2013 at 6:53 pm.

Hello Tali,
I have tried making this recipe and was not succeful. Because of my back problems I cannot knead. So, I made it in my Kitchen Aid. I placed salt, flours, sugar, and yeast in a bowl of the mixer, started the machine and slowly added water. When dough sort of came together, I slowly added the oil and let the machine knead it for about 5 minutes. At this point it looked like dryish clay, so I added a bit more water and kneaded it for another 2 – 3 minutes. The improvement was very slight. I then placed in a bowl, covered it with a towel and left in a warm place for about 2 hours. The dough rose maybe about 5%. I let it rise for another hour, alas to no avail. Not one to give up easily, I separated tthe dough and attempted to braid it, it was fighting mt all the thru. I have then let the “challas” rise fir another 30 or so minutes and baked it. It did not rise at all, came out like clay/brick loaf, of a beautifulvgolden color. What did I do wrong? Please help. I have made challahs and breads before, using my mixer and I have also made a bunch of your recipes and came to love them. How can I make this challah a success?

Thank you very much.

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Tali Simon on January 31, 2013 at 12:08 pm.

Sorry you had such a frustrating experience with this recipe! A few comments:

1. The recipe does call for combining the dry ingredients, yeast included, exactly as you did. I’ve followed these instructions successfully several times, but you might find that activating the yeast in the normal way and only adding the salt, flours, and sugar afterward will be easier for you. To activate dry active yeast, stir together the tablespoon of yeast, 1 1/2 cups warm water (about the temperature you’d use for a baby’s bath), and a teaspoon of sugar. Let it sit for 10 minutes. If it bubbles/foams, your yeast is good to go. If not, your bread won’t rise, so throw it out and try again with different yeast.

2. My cousin, who gave me the original recipe and bakes this challah every week, says the trick is to pour the oil around the edges of the bowl and on your hands, but not straight onto the dough. Did you follow this part of the directions? If you’re making in the KitchenAid, just raise the top of the machine, pour the oil around the edges of the bowl, and then let the dough hook work it in for you.

3. What percent of whole wheat flour did you use? I find that my doughs with only white flour come together the most easily, though using up to 50% whole wheat (as I do in this recipe) is manageable.

Good luck!

Shevy on February 10, 2014 at 10:59 am.

When I decided it was time to try a new challah recipe, the first place I decided to look was here since I knew you’d already have done all the work for me of trying different methods to get the yummiest challah! I wasn’t sure I’d love the consistency without the eggs (even though I’ve made water challah before) but this challah is a WINNER!!!!!!! Seriously, just try it. I didn’t do the oil the correct way so my loaves were a little small but still DELICIOUS!!! My husband also loved it – what’s great is it has a perfect taste + texture. Thanks so much Tali! I’m going to make my second batch now….

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Tali Simon on February 10, 2014 at 8:19 pm.

Woohoo! So glad this was such a hit in your house.

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