I know it sounds insane to start baking challah while the world is shutting down. But you’ll thank me later.
I have been doing it weekly for more than a decade. You can make it in 25 minutes – spread across five-minute intervals on a work-from-home Friday or in the evenings or mornings over the course of a few days.
I’m probably not the type of person you’d imagine to be a challah-baker, which is exactly the point.
I grew up in Miami. My family was active in our temple and a Zionist youth group, but while we celebrated the holidays, I never felt much of a connection to Shabbat. We would occasionally light the candles, but nothing really changed afterward. We just had a nice family meal.
On a singles trip to Israel in 1996, I visited a friend who was studying there for the summer. I walked into her apartment and found a whole community having Shabbat lunch, singing songs, and studying. It was clear something special was happening; spending the day with them left me wanting more.
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When my wife and I first got married, we didn’t belong to a synagogue. But we knew being connected to Judaism was important to us. We knew the rituals of Shabbat, but we didn’t really understand at an emotional level the meaning behind them.
We were young, living in Manhattan, and out every Friday night. One week we decided to start saying the blessings. So there we were, placing our order at Rosa Mexicana on the Upper East Side, then reciting the prayer – over the romantic tea lights.
Like so many people, we struggled to carve out the space and the time. We struggled with learning to rest.
Then we had four kids in five years. The idea of rest suddenly became very compelling.
I was working from home, and I love to bake, so I started making challah. Our whole crew would gather to light the candles, cover our eyes, say the blessings, and then open our eyes.
At first we were just going through the motions. But then something amazing happened. I started telling my clients that I don’t work Friday night through Saturday night. They could reach me in the case of an emergency, but I was otherwise off with my family. I felt like I was on a 24-hour vacation once I opened my eyes after saying the shabbat blessings.
We’ve done this now for almost 14 years.
Sometimes I make the challah, some weeks — and for a few years when I was working in the city — my wife, Judy, makes it, and sometimes we do it together. Most often, I make it all in one day because I’m working from home and I can fit it in between meetings. But some weeks, I stretch the process our over a couple of nights.
Having this rhythm and ritual has made all the difference in the hard times: after Hurricane Sandy, when the company I was working for downsized; when my step-sister Lauren died. No matter what’s going on, no matter where we are — even if we can’t actually light and the kids have to hold their hands over their heads and be candles — we stop and come together as a family.
We thank God for the food and the drink and the other things that we’re grateful for. And then I cut the end off the challah, and hand it to one of my children. They each take a piece and pass it around the table.
Right now I am distracted. I’m anxious. As a result, my challahs are not alway evenly sized. Sometimes they are kind of ugly. But they are really, really, sweet.
The recipe I like best comes from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible. It is more of a brioche than a dinner loaf: light, airy, dairy free, and always delicious.
I think of it as five steps: Make the starter and cover it with the dry ingredients; mix and knead the wet ingredients into that combo; let the dough rise; shape, braid, and glaze the dough; preheat the oven and bake.
Here are the ingredients:
- Unbleached All Purpose- Flour (1 cup)
- Instant Yeast (1tsp)
- Water (⅔ liquid cup, at room temperature)
- Honey (2 tablespoons)
- 3 large eggs (at room temperature)
- Unbleached All Purpose Flour (4 ⅔ cups)
- Instant Yeast (1 ¼ tsp)
- Salt (1 tablespoon)
- 2 large eggs (cold)
- Corn Oil (⅓ liquid cup)
- Honey (6 tablespoons)
- Cider Vinegar (1 tablespoons)
- 1 lightly beaten egg
- Water - 1 teaspoon
Mix the starter and the dry ingredients first thing in the morning. Put the ingredients for the starter in a large mixing bowl. Mix for one minute, using a whisk. Then put the dry ingredients in another large bowl, taking care not to pour the salt directly on the yeast. Now sprinkle the dry ingredients on top of the starter, and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap or a lid.
Let the bowl sit on the counter at room temperature for 1 to 4 hours, until the starter has bubbled through the dry ingredients.
Now add the eggs, corn oil, honey, cider vinegar, and water to the starter and dry ingredients.
Use a wooden spoon or bowl scraper to mix the ingredients until the flour is moistened. Continue until the dough comes together, then scrape it onto a lightly floured counter (the dough will be very sticky) and knead it for 5 minutes. (You can use a stand mixer, with the dough hook. Beat on low speed for 1 minute, then medium for about 5, until the dough is smooth and shiny. Sprinkle some flour on a counter, scrape the dough out of the bowl and knead for a minute or so, until it is just barely sticky.
The dough needs to rise for 1-2 hours, until it has doubled in size. Then gently deflate the dough by pulling up the sides and pushing it down into the middle. Let it rise until doubled again – about 45 minutes to an hour.
Time to braid: Using a knife, separate the dough into two equal pieces. Set one aside, then divide the other into three equal pieces.
Lightly flour your hands. Roll each dough ball into a 15-16 inch rope. Lay one rope on the counter in front of you. Then cross the two remaining ropes across the center – making a long x with a vertical line through it. Starting in the center, cross the outside strand over the center strand. Alternate from side to side until the first half is fully braided. Tuck the braided ends under the bottom of the loaf. Then braid the other side. You can see a video on how to braid here.
Cover a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Use a pastry brush or paper towels to paint the dough with the egg wash glaze. Lightly cover the dough and let it rise for about an hour, until doubled. It will be longer, wider, and thicker.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Set the rack in the middle position.
Bake the challah until it turns a nice shade of brown (about 20 minutes). Cover with aluminum foil and bake for another 20 minutes. When it’s done, it will be golden brown without any uncooked spots. A skewer inserted into the middle will come out clean.
You can also break the process up to fit better into your life. You can make the starter up to 24 hours before you want to mix the dough. Just put the bowl containing the starter and dry ingredients in the fridge after an hour of rising. It can stay there up to 24 hours, but needs to be out for an hour before the next step.
Additionally, you can let the dough rise overnight, rather than the hour and a half on the counter. Just refrigerate the dough, wrapped loosely in plastic wrap and covered with a plastic bag or large bowl, overnight. Take it out 30 minutes before you shape, braid, and glaze the dough.
Don is a product manager who helps entrepreneurs turn rough ideas into products and services. He lives in Hastings on Hudson, New York with his wife and four kids.
You’re home anyway. Why not make challah this Shabbat?