This fall, a quest to make apple cider challah had me reducing cider by the gallon, watching video after video on youtube, making French toast every other morning. I had a post nearly ready to publish, but in the end, I just wasn’t satisfied. The loaves looked pretty and tasted good, too, but the final product didn’t warrant the work or cost involved in reducing the cider. So I took a break from all of my challah making, stashed the loaves in the freezer, and returned to eating my apple cider donuts without thinking about any other apple cider offspring.
But about a month ago, the subject of challah came up with my friend Holly, who told me she had a great recipe, one she learned from her friend, (a wife of a rabbi), and she offered to show me how if I were interested. Umm, yes, please.
So one Friday, after dropping the kids off at school, I joined Holly at her house for coffee and a challah lesson. When I arrived, Holly had already made the sponges — 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, 1 packet yeast — which looked alive and ready for action. This is her Friday ritual: make the sponge before dropping her kids off at school; finish the process when she returns.
What I loved about Holly’s recipe and process was that it was so simple, so unfussy, so unlike the challah I had been making. Into each bowl we cracked two eggs, then added the honey, salt, oil and finally the remaining flour. After a brief kneading by hand, the dough was ready to rise. At this point I left, bowl of dough in hand, and completed the process on my own, guidance provided by Holly via text.
The dough rose beautifully and baked into a perfectly golden, light and airy, tangle of braids. Nearly every week since, I have made Holly’s challah, a treat aside any soup, a treasure for weekend brunch.
Incidentally, while I was in VI for Thanksgiving, my aunt mentioned she had made a breakthrough with her koulourakia (a twisted Greek cookie): after burning the bottom of several batches, she layered one cookie sheet on top of another, which provided enough insulation to prevent the bottoms from burning. Genius! The conversation immediately made me think of my challah-making trials, a burnt underside almost always a constant.
And so, the day after Thanksgiving, I made a loaf of Holly’s challah for my family, baked the bread on two layers of sheetpans, and for the first time, the bottom of my challah cooked evenly without the slightest sign of overbrowning — a miracle! The Greeks raved! The abstemious indulged! What can I say, Holly’s challah makes me wanna holla holla!
This is what the sponge — 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, 1 packet yeast — looks like after about an hour:
Then, you add the eggs, honey, salt and oil right into the bowl:
Work in the flour:
Mix until sticky:
Knead until smooth:
Transfer to an oiled bowl to rise:
Then wait an hour or two:
I made a double batch this time, so I divided the dough into 8 portions:
But with a single batch, divide the dough into three or four portions. Be sure to have a helper by your side:
There are countless ways to shape or braid the challah:
Holly’s is much prettier:
Baking the challah on two sheet pans prevents a burnt bottom:
4 to 5 cups (510 g to 620 g) all-purpose or bread flour
1 package or 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 cup hot water* (see note above)
2 tsp. salt or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup safflower oil or other neutral oil (canola, grapeseed, etc.)
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. water
poppy seeds, optional
Make the sponge: Whisk one cup of the flour with the yeast and stir in the hot water until the sponge is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel and let rise about 45 minutes or until puffy and bubbly.
Directly into the bowl, add the salt, honey, oil and eggs. Stir with a spatula or spoon until well mixed, then add the remaining three cups of flour. Stir with a spoon until dough forms a sticky mass. Add a bit more flour, then turn dough onto lightly floured work surface and knead for just a few minutes, until dough becomes smooth. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with dish towel or plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled in bulk, one to two hours or longer depending on the temperature of your kitchen. (Note: you can make the dough to this point and put it in the refrigerator overnight — this works!).
Punch down and divide into three or four parts, depending on what shape you want to make. Roll into long ropes and braid into desired shape (see notes below or check youtube). Brush with egg wash.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Let the loaf rise on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, about 30 minutes. Place another baking sheet underneath it — this will help insulate the bottom and keep it from burning.
Brush one more time with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds if you like. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, checking after 40 minutes. Cool completely before slicing.