Some people say that chicken noodle soup is the most therapeutic dish there is. A cure-all, if you will. (By some people, I mean my mommy and mommies everywhere. I’ve been a vegetarian for 11 years now, and every time I’m sick she asks if I’m sure I won’t eat chicken noodle soup? I am sure mommy.)
I think there’s something better. It’s called challah. It’s rich, slightly sweet, and terribly addicting. And when you make it at home, you feel like a million bucks, in spite of all the little germies creeping around your insides.
Challah is the kind of thing that even though it’s a yeast bread, and even though you have to braid it by hand, you’ll want to make it…even if, say, when someone took a x-ray of your chest, your lungs were all white-ish looking, and this means you have pneumonia. I mean, for example. Not speaking from personal, present experience or anything.
Why? What about a dish could possibly give you the urge to turn off the Royal Wedding highlights and get off the couch and into the kitchen? For me, it’s because challah is tied into a very long string of cheerful memories. As a little girl at religious school on Sundays, snack time meant big slices of challah – they cottony, fluffy grocery store kind – and cups of apple juice poured from a Costco-sized can. Friday nights at my house meant dinner with family and friends, where my little brother would say the Shabbat blessings over the challah. Eventually, my mom and I got brave enough to try our hand at homemade challah, and we haven’t looked back since. We always have (and probably always will) used our friend Tina Wasserman’s recipe.
Now, I think for both of us, homemade challah means calm. Peacefulness. Quiet focus at the end of a busy week. You have to concentrate on counting those 7 cups of flour. (It’s much easier than it sounds to lose track somewhere around 3 or 4.) You have to feel your butter mixture, making sure it’s warm enough to wake up your yeast, but not too hot to hurt it. And then there’s the fact that you have to work with your hands. Soft, slightly warm dough is always therapeutic. You get to knead it. You get to roll it. You get to braid it.
When it’s all (almost) said and done, challah smells like comfort when it’s baking. It smells unlike anything else I bake. Like wine and honey and yeast and sunshine. Can you imagine what that smells like?
And then, finally, you’re left with three golden works of art. It doesn’t matter if your braid is uneven or if one loaf is slightly larger than another. You put this on the dinner table, and everyone gets sort of quiet, just waiting for a loaf to be passed to them so they can tear off a piece. (There are some people who slice their challah. I say no. I say you put it together with your hands, you’re going to tear it apart with your hands.)
Challah doesn’t need butter. Challah just needs family. Friends. Smiles and sighs of relief.
So go. Make a batch. Braid it by 3’s or by 6’s (don’t worry, I’ll show you how). Feel better about your week and your health and your hair. Give a loaf to a friend or a neighbor. Bring a little peace and calm into your life.
Makes 3 loaves (or 6 mini loaves)
7 to 8 cups bread flour (I like Gold Medal Better for Bread)
2 envelopes rapid rise yeast
1 1/2 cups water
2 sticks unsalted butter (or pareve margarine if you’re keeping kosher)
1/4 tsp yellow food coloring (totally optional…I almost never use it)
3/4 cup sugar
1 TBS salt
4 large eggs
1 cup raisins (optional…I only add them for holidays, but they’re totally yummy)
egg wash = 1 egg beaten with 1 TBS water
Note: The dough can be made either in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment or by hand. I mostly make it by hand these days, after doing it in college so many times without a mixer. Both are equally easy and take the same amount of time.
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the water, butter, food coloring if using, sugar, and salt. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is mostly melted and the mixture reaches a temperature of 110-120ºF. (It should feel like hot tap water on your finger.) If the butter isn’t completely melted when it reaches this temperature, just remove the pan from the heat and continue stirring until the butter melts.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large mixing bowl, measure 7 cups of bread flour. Sprinkle the yeast over and stir briefly to combine. If using a mixer, turn the mixer on low and slowly pour in the warm butter mixture, making sure to scrape out any bits of salt or sugar at the bottom of the pan. If making by hand, pour in a little of the butter mixture at a time, mixing with a sturdy wooden spoon between additions. In either case, mix just until the flour starts to moisten.
3. Add eggs one at a time, mixing/stirring after each addition to combine. When all the eggs are added, the dough will seem slippery and wet. Adding about 1/4 cup at a time, gradually add in enough of the remaining 1 cup of flour to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. Go slowly and mix well after each addition! I usually don’t have to add the whole cup of flour. To get the best texture possible, you want to add just enough flour. The dough should just start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, whether you’re mixing by hand or with a mixer, when it’s ready. Add the raisins here, if using. At this point, continue kneading (either with the dough hook or by hand..which I just do directly in the bowl) the dough for about 5 minutes. It should stick very slightly to your fingers when it’s ready.
4. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of another large mixing bowl. Turn dough into that bowl, turning to coat the sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel. Place in a warm, draft-free area to rise until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes. (Orrr…use this trick: preheat your oven to 400ºF for ONE minute, then turn off the oven. Place your bowl of dough in the turned OFF oven to rise.)
5. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. When the dough has doubled in volume, turn it out onto a very lightly floured work surface (it usually has just enough oil from the bowl to prevent any sticking). Divide it into 3 equal portions. If you have a kitchen scale, feel free to use it…but I always estimate and it turns out fine. No one will complain if one loaf is slightly bigger than the others. Set aside two portions, leaving one to work with.
6. Ok. Time to braid. If you’re doing a 3-braid, just divide the dough into 3 and braid it like you would braid hair. If you’re doing a 6-braid, just follow these steps. Don’t psych yourself out, it’s simple, I swear. Divide your portion of dough into 6 equal portions. Now you want to make 6 ropes, each one about 12 inches long – give or take, this is not an exact science. You can roll them into ropes on the work surface, but I find it’s easiest to let gravity do some work. I hold each dough portion up and gently stretch it and squeeze it so that I’m holding the rope lengthwise up and down. If something tears, don’t worry! Just smush it up and start over.
7. When you have 6 ropes, lay them all next to each other so the ends are pointing at you. Starting at the far ends, mush the ends together so they won’t come apart while you’re braiding. Scoot the ropes to the sides a little so you have 2 groups of three, with a wider space in the center.
8. If it helps to think of numbers, pretend the ropes are numbered 1 thru 6 from left to right. Start with the rope all the way on the right, #6 – pick it up, and place it in the center gap, so that it’s now #4.
9. Now pick up the second rope from the left, #2, and place it all the way on the right, so that it’s now #6.
10. Pick up the first rope on the left, #1, and place it in the center gap, so that it’s now #3.
11. Pick up the second rope from the right, #5, and place it all the way on the left, so that it’s now #1.
12. Pick up the first rope on the right, #6, and place it in the center gap, so that it’s now #4.
13. Repeat…pick up the second rope from the left, #2, and place it all the way on the right, now #6…pick up the first rope on the left, #1, and place it in the center gap, now #3. Continue this process until your get to the end of the braid. Press the ends together to seal the braid. Place the completed braid on one of the baking sheets.
14. Repeat the braiding process with the other 2 portions of dough. I usually fit 2 loaves on one sheet diagonally, and the other loaf by itself on one sheet. Cover loaves with kitchen towels and let rise in a warm, draft-free space until puffy and visibly larger, about 25 minutes. (You can use the oven trick again here, just make sure to take the loaves out before you preheat the oven to bake them!)
15. Preheat oven to 375ºF with racks in the upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Brush loaves with egg wash. Bake challahs (actually plural in Hebrew would be challot, if we’re going to get technical here) until they’re golden brown and sound hollow when tapped, about 15-17 minutes total, switching the pans from top to bottom halfway through. You can let the loaves cool on a wire cooling rack if you want, but there are very few things that are better than warm challah, fresh from the oven.
Recipe adapted from Tina Wasserman
Challah keeps in an airtight container for about 3 days. It also freezes extremely well…just wrap them tightly in plastic, then place in freezer-safe Ziploc bags to freeze. Thaw at room temperature for a few hours or in a 350ºF oven, wrapped in foil.
You’re probably already aware that challah makes incredibly delicious french toast (and bread pudding, if you can stand to let your challah get stale). And I know I said that challah doesn’t need butter, but I have yet to find a better late night snack than a challah cheese sandwich or a challah peanut butter sandwich. For serious.
I want to know when you make this! I love teaching people to make it…everyone from roommates to boyfriends to boyfriend’s mom. Thanks for reading, happy, peaceful baking!