For me, challah is a lesson in perseverance.
When I was a new bride twelve years ago, I wanted to impress my husband’s family by trying my hand at homemade challah. They were visiting for the weekend, and I made a challah that looked pretty but it didn’t taste that great. I was told that good challah is really, really hard to figure out.
Through the years, I made a few attempts, always with the same not-so-great results, and I started to think all those dissenting voices were right. Challah was too hard. I should just stop trying.
Something got into me about a year and a half ago. Maybe it was that my children were a little bit older, and could do things for themselves and play independently, and I found myself with more time on my hands. Baking bread was something I’d always wanted to learn about—I was drawn to both the art and the science of it. So I started trying to make challah again. This time I did it consistently.
I made it every week. I learned about the best kind of flour to use. I started to understand what the yeast was supposed to look like when it bloomed, and what the dough was supposed to feel like when it was ready to rise. I experimented with it; I found out what worked and what didn’t. I tweaked my recipe. My challah got better as I started to understand the process of it.
Bread baking will always have an element of mystery to it. Dough made exactly the same way will feel different on different days. Why? I have no idea, but I’ve learned to go with it. A lot of it is just doing what I know has worked in the past, trusting my instincts, and letting the yeast and the eggs and the flour and the heat do the rest.
This past summer I entered my challah in the Kentucky State Fair, and it won a blue ribbon! (And yes, there was a specific challah category, and yes, there were other entries. Five, to be exact). I’m proud of by blue ribbon and what it stands for: striving to learn about and master a process that interested me. I’m happy to share my award-winning recipe with anyone who asks, and this recipe includes more than just the cold, hard facts. I’ve included tips and tricks that have worked for me as I’ve learned the process, just the way I would if you were learning to make it by standing with me in my kitchen. I hope this challah recipe brings joy and warmth to you and your family.
Blue Ribbon Challah
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 packet (or 2-1/4 tsps.) Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast
- 4 cups White Lily Bread Flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
In a small bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and a pinch of sugar. I like to run the water over my hand until it is just warm; that’s the right temperature for the yeast. Don’t be afraid to stir the yeast around to really mix it with the water. The pinch of sugar will encourage the yeast, too. Let it sit for five minutes or so. The yeast will bloom and create a foam on the surface of the water when it’s ready.
Stir together dry ingredients. Add 3 eggs and oil. Add yeast once it has proofed. Mix for 3-5 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or knead by hand for 10 minutes. (I have tried both ways and both work). The dough is ready when it feels like chewing gum. It should be a little bit sticky, but if you touch it with a clean finger, it shouldn’t stick to your finger.
Put the yeast in a clean, oiled bowl, and let it rise for 1-2 hours.
The dough might feel too wet if you try to braid it before it has had time to rise. Resist the urge to add more flour at any point after mixing the dough. If it has risen long enough, it will be the perfect consistency to work with when it’s time to braid, and you won’t feel the need to add flour.
Punch down the risen dough, and divide into two sections. Divide each section in to four smaller sections and gently squeeze each section into a long strip. Don’t pull the dough, just squeeze it. Arrange four strips in neat horizontal rows, and begin braiding.
Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by the braiding step. It really is a matter of taking each strip over, under, over, under. The more you do this, the easier it gets, and you’ll be able to get creative with braiding patterns. I like to start braiding in the middle and move right; when that’s done, I go back to the middle and work left. This dough is really easy to work with and not too wet, so if you mess up, it’s easy to take the braid apart and redo it.
I like to do four-braided challah, and I start with the top challah strip. I take it over the second from the top, under the second from the bottom, and over the bottom strip. The strip that was the second from the top is now the top strip, and I repeat the over-under pattern again and again until I reach the end. Then I go back to the middle and continue the same pattern to the left side of the loaf. If some strips are a little longer at the end, I tear off the extra dough and use it to make a small, American Girl doll-sized loaf.
Beat the last egg and brush over the challah. Let it rise for another hour, then bake at 350º for 30 minutes or until golden brown. I use a baking stone lined with parchment paper, but a cookie sheet with parchment paper works just fine.
I’ve also divided this recipe three or four ways for slightly smaller loaves, and I made challah rolls for Thanksgiving. I find the cooking time to be the same, even for challah rolls and American Girl loaves, but you know your oven so you may want to reduce baking time by a few minutes for smaller loaves or rolls. The challah should have a crisp, golden crust, and if you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow—that’s how you know it’s done!
Let it cool a little bit before cutting. My family loves to eat it warm, with delicious Kerrygold butter!