Before I even thought of making bread, I made this challah - every week in my bread machine. And the story starts with my husband, who ate bread every day. I would go to a local bakery in DC and buy him a boule; then in Brooklyn, when I had our older daughter, I would buy an Italian bread. She would sit up in the backpack and I would give her the end to munch on as we walked home. When she was old enough, Brooklyn being a magical place, the woman behind the counter would give her a cookie everyday.
[Photo: Just-baked small challahs from one batch of bread machine dough. I always bake a roll for each challah.]
What happens without a good bakery
When we moved back to DC, the bread machine stayed with boxes in the basement. And then, discovering that there is no good Jewish bakery (sacrilege to eat supermarket challah in my own personal list of religious rules), and wanting my children to grow up with fresh, good challah every Friday night, I asked my sister for her recipe. I thought I was being a regular Betty Crocker just to be making my own challah, even though the bread machine was doing 90 percent of the work. I take the dough out of the machine, and to this day I braid, always using a small piece of dough for a braided roll (except for the high holidays, when I make round challahs and challah rolls), and bake the challah in the oven.
[Photo: Sometimes the end of the challah separates a bit, but the braid stays.]
For years, this was the only bread I made. I was proud of it and I was intimidated by the idea of doing anything further, especially without the trusty bread machine. I added a 100 percent whole wheat bread - bread negative one - and there my repertoire stayed for 10 years or so. The challah was such a favorite that every time I visited my parents I would bring one and when my daughters each went off to college, it was frequently requested as a treat. Many frozen challahs have traveled with them to school. Another couple of close friends have become regulars, which makes me very happy because my parents are gone now and I miss their enjoyment, their fussing over this bread.
Challah is also my dog's favorite. He once ate a whole one right off the counter.
Before the challah series starts, it is fitting to pay homage to this bread, which always comes out well. I can make this in my sleep. It is my Friday afternoon ritual to come home from the office, don an apron, and make the challah. Once the machine is turned on, I do a little artwork and prepare for Shabbat in between having to pay attention and tend to the dough. By the time the challah is ready, Shabbat is starting or about to. Every week, this challah comes out perfect.
2/3 to 3/4 cup water
1/4 cup oil (I use olive oil)
1 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups bread or all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar or honey (reduce water a bit if using honey)
1 tbsp yeast
1 egg yolk (to brush on for a nice finish)
poppy or sesame seeds, optional
Put in the bread machine the wet ingredients - water, oil, eggs. Add salt and bread flour. Add honey now if not using sugar. Make a well or two in the flour. Add the sugar and the yeast.
[Photo: Ingredients for challah in the bread machine pan. Sugar and yeast on top of flour, with liquid on the bottom.]
Set the bread machine for the dough cycle. When the bread machine has been mixing for five to seven minutes, check the dough. I set my timer for 28 minutes because my bread machine sits for a while before mixing the ingredients. I only check after at least five minutes of active mixing.
Usually the dough is fine, I walk away and continue with my Friday afternoon routine.
[Photo: Dough after five minutes of mixing.]
If the dough is crumbly or dry looking, add water. For dry, maybe a teaspoon. For crumbly, the dough might need a tablespoon or more. Add no more than a tablespoon at a time. Give the machine a minute or two and check again now that the extra water has been mixed into the dough. If the dough, on the other hand, is sticking wetly to the sides, add a little flour, maybe a tablespoon. The latter almost never happens. Check again after a minute or two. Keep the bread machine on. Very rarely, this can take another 10 minutes.
Holiday challah raisin mix
It is traditional for the Jewish New Year and for that first month to make a round challah with raisins. Really,one can make a regular challah with raisins as well.
Add to dough
1 cup raisins
cinnamon to taste (don't be shy, maybe 1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Mix the raisins, cinnamon and vanilla extract together. Taste the mix. It should NOT be sweet, but more of a sharp cinnamon taste. The sweetness will come with the integration of this mix into the dough.
Maybe ten minutes after the dough check, add the raisin mix. I make sure that the raisin mix is well incorporated throughout. I have also forgotten and added the mix after the dough is ready and that works as well.
[Photo: Dough after initial mixing stage of approximately 15 minutes of mixing and kneading.]
Getting the dough ready to bake
A half hour to an hour before the dough cycle is complete, preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. I use a baking stone, which gives a nice bakery-like finish to the bottom of the bread. No steam or la cloche is necessary.
[Photo: Challah dough at the end of the bread machine dough cycle. Ready to be prepared for baking.]
When the dough is ready, I braid. My braiding has improved because I now roll each strand before braiding and I braid from the middle to the ends of the challah. I flatten slightly the dough for each strand and fold in the long sides to make a fat tube-like shape, sort of making a envelope while not keeping the rectangular shape. Very easy to make a braided roll. I only use three strands, like a hair braid, but I might very well experiment with that as well.
I spread some egg yolk on top and sometimes put sesame seeds on top. Poppy seeds are also a traditional option.
I bake the challah for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the roll at 30.
[Photo: Braided dough with egg yolk for two rolls and two small challahs on baking stone in oven. This is from one batch of dough.]
Other shaping options
If you a making a challah or challah rolls for the high holidays, here are instructions for making a round challah and a round bunch of rolls.
Use a round pie or aluminum pan. Otherwise, beware, you might get a strangely-shaped bread. Line with parchment paper.
Basically, except for the ends, stretch the dough into one very long rectangle about two feet long and six inches wide, approximately. Taper the ends so that they are about half to two-thirds the width of the middle.
Wrap the dough as though making a spiral and tuck the end underneath. Make sure the middle of the circle of dough is low. Otherwise, it can pop up high and make a weird shape in the oven.
Brush on egg yolk. Bake at 325 degrees for 32 to 35 minutes.
Round rolls en masse
Something that always goes over well, whether plain or made with the raisin mixture, is a round robin of rolls made together. Use a pie or round aluminum pan. Line with parchment paper.
Make miniatures of the round challah shape described just above. Make 10-15. Put them side by side in the pie pan until they are totally scrunched together.
Brush on egg yolk. Bake at 325 degrees for 32 to 35 minutes. The rolls will bake all as one, but they will be easy to break off separately.
[Photo: Close up of the baked small challahs. They have a homemade look.]
That's it, the sum of my challah knowledge. Well, that and the memory of what a good challah dough feels like as I roll the strands or shape into a round holiday challah. Every time I make this bread, I think of all the Friday nights of my childhood making Shabbos around the kitchen table and the peace in my house that descends when I light Shabbat candles and we partake of this special bread. And after we say the prayer over the challah, the motzi, we all grab a bit and the dog gets his share. This is his favorite bread.