By Becky Billingsley
Nothing goes better with warm fall and winter soups than a hunk of freshly baked bread, and Challah is an often overlooked choice for non-Jewish home bakers.
You don't have to be Jewish to understand the appeal of this soft and slightly sweet pull-apart bread.
Challah (pronounced halla) commemorates the time around the 7th century B.C. when Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. During the Exodus, bread, or manna, fell from the heavens to feed them. But since no work is done on Saturdays according to Jewish traditions, a double portion of bread fell the days before religious holidays or the Sabbath.
This double portion is why Sabbath challah is made into a braid, also called a "double loaf."
Traditional Challa does not contain butter or milk according to Jewish laws, and there are also eggless versions, but the recipe in this article does contain eggs. It is shared by Inbal Bresnahan, who owns Diner at the Beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She is a native of Israel, where her parents both work as chefs. This is the recipe Bresnahan learned from her family, and every Friday she bakes fresh loaves. While many of her customers buy challah for their Sabbath and Holy Day meals, the chef also has a number of non-Jewish fans who simply appreciate the soft and flavorful loaves.
To make Challah:
Blend together:1 1/2 cups hot water3 packages active dry yeast2 tablespoons sugarLet this mixture sit 15 minutes.After 15 minutes, the yeast mixture will look like this.Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix:1 5-pound bag all-purpose sifted flour, reserving 1/2 cup1 cup vegetable or canola oil1 cup sugar (or 1/4 cup if adding mix-ins)2 tablespoons saltsifting flourAdd oil, sugar and salt to the flour, and mix well.oil additions to flourAdd eggs and hot water, and mix well.3 eggs2 3/4 cups hot water (you can add a little more, if needed)Add the yeast mixture, and mix well.Put your hands in the bowl and finish mixing so the dough is thoroughly incorporated. Remove the dough from the bowl, place on a lightly floured surface (this is what the remaining half-cup of flour was for), and start kneading. Continue kneading for 15 to 20 minutes, until the dough feels elastic and smooth.finished mixingKnead the dough for 15 to 20 minutes.Place the dough, covered, in a warm corner of the kitchen away from drafts and let rise 3 hours. After 3 hours are up, knead the dough again.Now it's time to shape the loaves, but first pinch off a small piece of dough and set it aside. Chef Bresnahan's mother always told her this tithe was "for the poor people," and some Jewish bakers consider it a tithe for their rabbis.It's traditional to pinch off a small piece of dough "for the poor people" when making challah.To shape the dough, cut one-sixth of the bread dough off.Each loaf should be 1/6 of the original batch of dough.Optional: Before shaping the dough you can add raisins, chocolate chips, dates, cinnamon, dried chilies, olives or other sweet or savory ingredients. However, if you add ingredients, reduce the amount of sugar in the original recipe to 1/4 cup.Take that one-sixth piece and cut it into three equal pieces. Roll each of these three pieces into cylinders, each about 18 inches long. Lay the cylinders out side by side, and pinch their tops together at one end.To make a challah braid, divide the 1/6 piece of dough into three equal portions and roll into long cylinders.Pinch the ends of the three cylinders together at one end.Now simply braid the three dough strands as you would a hair braid. When you get to the end of the braid, cut off the remaining 2 inches with a knife. Place the braid on a greased baking sheet and let rise 40 minutes.Plait the three dough strands as you would a hair braid.When there is only 2 inches left unbraided, cut off the excess portion.Place the braid on a greased pan and let rise for 40 minutes.Whisk together an egg wash of:5 eggs2 tablespoons water2 tablespoons sugarAfter the loaf has risen for 40 minutes, brush the dough with the egg wash. At this time you can sprinkle the dough with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, if desired. Bake for 17 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven, until golden brown and done.Brush the egg wash on the risen loaf.Instead of the braid, you can also make a round loaf like is eaten on High Holy Days. Take a one-sixth portion of the dough, roll it out into one long cylinder and coil it into a shape like a Hershey's Kiss. Then follow the same directions as above for rising, brushing with egg wash and baking.Challah can also be coiled into a round loaf.After applying egg wash, sesame or poppy seeds can be sprinkled on top.Challah coiled into a round loaf is eaten on Jewish High Holy Days, but anyone of any religion can enjoy this sweet and soft bread.