My challah baking adventure began in March – right around the time that everything shut down. No more Friday night services, no more B’nai Mitzvahs to attend, no more ‘pasta nights’ with friends, no more work (as I, along with millions of others, was furloughed). The kids were home all the time, as was my husband. There seemed to be nothing to differentiate the days of the week – every day began to blend into the other. This is where the challah baking comes in. I had never baked challah before, but after curbside pick-up of yeast (SAF Red Instant) and bread flour I was ready to begin. I realized that challah baking gave me a way to mark the end of the week. Using my sturdy mixing bowl and my hands, I added, mixed, kneaded, adjusted, and baked with a strong intent – putting love, calm, hopes and wishes into the process. Creating loaves of challah with care for my family felt like a way to ground and put meaning to my week by starting the ritual of welcoming in Shabbat. For many weeks during this pandemic I have baked, and then my family and I have engaged in the traditions of Shabbat – lighting candles, blessing the wine and challah and taking a moment to close out the week, to rest and reflect, and return to our best selves as we prepare for the week to come.
The following recipe is one I have adapted from Joan Nathan’s New York Times “My Favorite Challah”. This recipe takes about 3 ½ – 4 hours and make 2 large loaves
1 ½ packages active dry yeast (about 3 1/2 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup honey
½ cup vegetable oil, more for greasing bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 ½ cups flour – 4 cups all-purpose flour/4 cups bread flour
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with honey and salt. Gradually add flour – alternating between all-purpose and bread flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth (About 7-9 minutes). Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. (I put mine in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off.) Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
To make a 3-braid challah, take half the dough and form it into 3 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 3 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over the middle strand. Take the outside left strand and move it over the middle strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. Tuck ends underneath. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking. Bake in middle of oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden. Cool loaves on a rack.