Challah: A Classic Egg Bread
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Thanks to centuries of Jewish heritage, people worldwide are familiar with the golden yellow braided bread served at Shabbat (Sabbath), the weekly religious ritual from sundown on Friday through the completion of nightfall on Saturday. It’s a day of reflection and rest — a time to set aside all concerns of the week and devote oneself to spiritual enrichment.
For many, challah is symbolic of the daily portion of bread from Heaven — manna — that God provided the Jews during their flight from Egypt in ancient times, as described in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Challah represents the idea of taking something physical and elevating it to the spiritual, providing nourishment to those who eat the bread, but also being nurtured spiritually with blessings and gratitude.
Challah is deeply rooted in Jewish traditions, with a rich history that invites one to explore more about the origin of baking and serving this legendary bread. A good place to begin is the well-researched book, A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World, by Maggie Glezer, an American Institute of Baking certified author who specializes in teaching and bread-making for amateur and professional bakers.
Captivated by the significance in every nuance surrounding the bread, Glezer spent years researching and testing recipes. The result is a fascinating in-depth guide to the many varieties of Jewish breads found worldwide.
Like any recipe for a specific bread, there are different ingredients, especially the number of eggs in the batter. Some “water challahs” do not contain eggs, but most challah recipes use egg as a focal ingredient. With challah, eggs give it that beautiful golden color, plus a more refined and richer texture and more volume. Comparing recipes and experimenting in the kitchen can help in perfecting the perfect loaf. Here’s Maggie Glezer’s recipe for a sweet, rich, and honey-scented challah.
Makes two 15-ounce loaves
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- ¼ cup warm water
- 3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs plus one for glazing
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup mild honey
- In a large bowl, stir together the yeast and ¼ cup of flour.
- Then whisk in the warm water until smooth. Let the yeast slurry stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.
Mixing the dough:
- Whisk the three eggs, salt, oil, and honey into the yeast slurry.
- (A hint: measure oil first, then use the same cup for the honey. The oil will coat the cup and let the honey slip out easily). Mix until the eggs are well incorporated, and the salt has dissolved.
- Add the remaining 3¼ cups of flour using a wooden spoon.
- When the mixture resembles a shaggy ball, place it on a work surface, kneading until smooth … no more than five minutes, until consistency of modeling clay.
- If too firm, add a tablespoon of water. If too wet, add a tablespoon of flour.
Fermenting the dough:
- Place the dough back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, letting it ferment until it has doubled in bulk — about two hours.
Shaping and proofing (the last rise before baking the dough):
- Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough into two portions, braiding each. Braiding the dough may seem complicated, but Maggie Glazer has produced an easy-to-understand video on the process. It can be found at: finecooking.com, typing in “Braiding Challah.”
- For each loaf, divide the dough into six strands — pinched together at one end. Braid and finish with another pinch. Cover the loaves again, letting them proof (rise) until tripled in size … about two hours.
- Afterward, brush each loaf with the egg wash made with the remaining egg and a pinch of salt.
- Bake at 325 degrees F in the middle of the oven for 35 to 45 minutes until browned.
Glezer explains more about baking different size loaves and individual rolls. You can find her directions at epicurious.com. Simply type in “My Challah by Maggie Glezer.”
Some cooks like to sprinkle sweet and nutty sesame seeds on top of challah before baking, giving the bread a bit of crunch to each slice. Others enjoy adding raisins or currents to the recipe. Soak the fruit in hot or boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes to make them plump and juicy. Then toss them in a bit of flour before adding to the other ingredients. This helps incorporate the fruit throughout the batter.
Beyond Sliced Toast
There are many ways to enjoy challah. Slice it with a bit of butter, or pop it into the toaster, serving it with jam or honey. A platter of French toast drizzled with maple syrup or paired with fresh strawberries and peaches is a delicious breakfast or brunch delicacy. Then there’s bread pudding, the ultimate comfort food made with sturdy, stale bread, eggs, spices, milk, or cream. Why not try a tasty recipe for a challah breakfast casserole made with egg custard and fresh raspberries that will add a bit of flair to the table, served with raspberry syrup?
Savory dishes made with challah can add a new dimension to the dinner table, such as a bread pudding casserole studded with wild mushrooms, gooey Gruyère cheese, and lots of garlic. It’s a great main-dish meal served with a tossed salad on chilly autumn and winter nights.
Though eating meat and dairy together isn’t considered kosher, sandwiches are also a great way to serve this rich eggy bread, especially when toasted like the Monte Cristo! Slice the bread and spread a thin layer of mustard or mayonnaise on each portion. Add thinly sliced ham (turkey is often added) to one side and grated cheese (Swiss, Gruyère, mozzarella, or provolone) on the other. Combine the two slices and submerge each sandwich in an egg custard mixture (egg, milk, salt). Melt a bit of butter in a stainless steel or quality non-stick skillet, cooking each side on medium-low heat until golden brown.
If baking isn’t an option, or time is of the essence, there are many ways to bring challah to the table, depending on the availability in one’s community. Many bakeries and delicatessens make their own bread, and some grocery stores keep it in stock. Fortunately, there are many resources for fast mail order deliveries in today’s world of online shopping. Search “buying challah bread online,” and a list of bakery and store websites will appear.
Challah — steeped in Jewish tradition and shared throughout the world.
Thank you for such a gift of goodness!
Similar Yet Different
Another egg-enriched baked good that rivals challah is brioche, dating back to the 15th century in France. While similar in taste and texture, the two are distinctively different.
The most significant contrast is challah is kosher — sanctioned by Jewish law, meaning it’s made without any dairy, such as butter or milk. Instead, the ingredients are eggs, flour, sugar or honey, yeast, water, and salt.
Brioche is often baked in fluted round tins with a ball of dough on top, known as a brioche à tête. The recipe calls for butter and milk (sometimes cream) in the batter, giving the bread a lighter, fluffier texture and a sweeter flavor. These flaky, almost pastry-like delicacies are popular at breakfast, served with a strong cup of coffee.
You can use both challah and brioche in making delicious French toast and other enticing dishes that call for sliced or cubed bread. They’re a welcome addition to any meal or afternoon snack.
Originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.