Grandma Karen's Best Challah
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Challah is a tender and subtly sweet egg bread made traditionally on Fridays for Shabbat. An authentic challah recipe should make two loaves and be dairy free. Many recipes I've seen do one or the other but not both. A traditional challah recipe makes enough for two loaves so one can be eaten Friday night and the second on Saturday. This is great if you observe the day of rest, but you can also give the second loaf to a friend as I do. Challah is supposed to be dairy free (despite many recipes I've seen calling for butter) because it's meant to be eaten with a traditional kosher meat dinner. In addition, using oil—not butter—contributes to the characteristic soft texture.
It's redundant to say "challah bread" (that's like saying baguette bread)
The plural of challah is challot (ha-LOTE) not "challahs"
When made correctly, challah is a treat enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike—eaten on its own, used to sop up the last bits of matzah-ball soup, or as the base of French toast. In my family, challah is a symbol of celebration. My Grandma Karen makes this challah for every joyous occasion in our families. At the bar mitzvot of my cousins, siblings, and mine, she bakes a grand challah big enough for the whole party.
Challah at my Bar Mitzvah, 2013
One of my fondest memories with this recipe comes from my trip to Israel last summer. I travelled there for three weeks with my summer camp, and we had a weekend where we could stay with family if we wanted to. I had not met most of my Israeli cousins, but my Grandpa Nate (on the other side of the family from Grandma Karen) arranged for me to stay with them. Around noon on that Friday, I arrived at my cousin Joel and Laya's home in Jerusalem. Laya was starting to cook dinner, so I asked what I could do to help. I said I could make challah—and within 15 minutes of meeting these cousins, I was making challah by hand in their kitchen. When everyone came over for dinner, it was a great way to connect with them all.
The challot I made in Jerusalem (iPhone picture)
A few more notes...
Making it ahead: It can be a lot of work to make the dough and bake it all in one day, so I often make the dough one day and do a slow rise in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, you just have to braid the dough, let it do the second rising, and bake.
My grandma and I like to make the dough in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, but you could certainly make it by hand.
Grandma Karen and I have lots of ***starred tips in the footnotes.
And finally, the recipe!
Ingredients for the dough:
1–1/4 cups (288ml) water
1 tsp sugar
3–1/4 tsp dry yeast
1/3 cup (65g) canola oil or olive oil
1/3 cup (100g) honey
3 large or XL eggs
1–1/2 tsp kosher salt
5–6 cups (650–780g) King Arthur Bread Flour
Ingredients for the final prep:
1 egg beaten well with 2 teaspoons of cold water
Poppy or sesame seeds or Maldon salt (optional for sprinkling)
Making the dough:
In a large (4 cup) pyrex measuring cup or microwave safe bowl, heat the water in the microwave on high heat for 50 seconds.* Of the hot water, mix about 1/4 cup with the sugar and yeast in a small bowl. Set the yeast mixture aside.
In the large measuring cup with the rest of the warm water, whisk the canola oil and honey and with the water.** Add the eggs and beat well.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook (or a large mixing bowl to make by hand), add 5 cups of the bread flour and the salt. Let mix on low briefly to distribute the salt evenly. Add the water/egg/honey/oil mixture on low, then the now foamy yeast mixture. Let knead on medium low speed (#2) for about 10 minutes, adding about 1/2 cup more flour as necessary if the mixture looks really wet (or knead manually for 10 minutes). Once the dough mostly releases from the sides of the bowl, forming one mass, turn off the mixer. It should be a little tacky and very elastic. Err on the side of adding less flour; after the first rising, the stickiness will subside.
Take the dough out, place on a lightly floured surface. Clean the mixer bowl, then coat with a little oil. Return the dough to the bowl, and cover with greased aluminum foil. At this point you can place the bowl in the fridge to use the next day or let rise for 1-2 hours in a warm place.***
My grandma and I like to shape our challah with a large 3 strand braid on the bottom, and a smaller 3 strand braid stacked on top. We weave the two ends together. This shape gives more height to the loaf and definition to the plaits. You can just do a three stranded braid but it will be more flat.
Second rising, final preparation, and baking
Place both braided loaves on separate baking sheets lined with silpats or parchment.
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Let the loaves rise on the counter top, uncovered, for between 1–3 hours.****
Brush the egg wash (from the final prep ingredients) onto one loaf. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds to taste.
Put the first loaf in the oven, and change the setting to 375° F Convection. Bake for 25 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the loaf exceeds 185° F.
Repeat with the second loaf.
Cool on a wire rack before cutting into.
Stick an instant-read thermometer into a groove to take the internal temperature
*alternatively, heat it on the stove until it reaches 110° F.
** Measuring the canola oil first lets the honey out of the measuring cup more easily.
***My grandma and I like to make a nice environment for the dough by boiling water in the microwave then placing the bowl of dough in the microwave (without taking the cup of water out) and letting the dough rise in the turned off microwave.
****Rushing the second rising results in unattractive spreading between the braid peaks. Generally err on the side of letting it rise longer.