Basic, Beautiful Challah

I’ve been feeling extra Jewy lately. When Nazis and white nationalists come out of the woodwork, you see, my instinct grows strong to pull out the gold Star of David my great-great-uncle made for my grandmother and wear it proudly, unabashedly around my neck — just like I did when I visited Auschwitz and a little nearby Polish town called Bedzin, where my grandfather’s parents were from, once so bustling with Jews but now containing only an overgrown Jewish cemetery in the middle of a forest and one sole Jewish family. It’s my middle finger to those who wish us gone. Great-Great-Uncle Adrian, the jeweler who made that beautiful star,  came here, with his parents and brother and sisters — including my great-grandmother — from Bucharest, like so many Jews, like my other great-grandparents, to escape persecution. Lucky they left when they did. So many others could not. So many others never would. So many others were trapped.

Which is why this week I decided to make some challah. A braided, enriched, eggy bread, challah, to me, is comforting in its tenderness. And braiding challah is, in essence, a meditation on humanity: many separate strands woven together to create a whole. I’m no Jewish scholar. I’m not sure if that ever was what was intended in the weekly preparation of this special bread, eaten on the Sabbath and all holidays (besides Passover). But today, I feel more than ever that it’s what it’s meant to be.

This is what I do know about my faith — which is, by all means, not terribly religious but deeply ingrained: our world is imperfect, and broken, and it is our duty in this life and in all lives to come to try to fix it. To be kind, to help and protect our fellows — even those who are not like us. To seek justice. To speak out when one person is being threatened, when one group is being threatened, when many are.

I have a feeling most share this tenet. If only we would see beyond ourselves and own own lives, beyond our fear or mistrust. If only we had a little empathy. For the person on the plane who looks a little different, prays a little different, doesn’t pray at all. The person with a passport in Arabic, in Farsi, in Spanish. The person with no passport, no home, because his government considers him a non-person. The little girl who has terror only in her eyes, because that’s the only thing she’s known in her short, war-torn life.

By braiding challah, we’re coaxing these many disparate strands together, welcoming them into our hearts and to our hearth. Urging them to rise and bind together. Overlapping, each strand protects the others. You see, beneath the bronzed, lumpy braid, the crumb becomes homogenous, soft, tender. After all, those strands are all made of the same stuff.

Basic, Beautiful Challah
adapted from Joan Nathan

Make sure not to toss your egg wash after you first brush it on, unless you plan to freeze your loaf and bake it at another time. The key to ensuring a bronzed, golden challah is a second brushing of that egg wash after it’s risen a final time, just before it’s baked. You can also refrigerate the dough during any of the rises — just make sure it’s covered, and when you’re ready to work with it again, give it enough time to come back to room temperature before proceeding.

Six-braided challah is a little confusing — you can see above that I messed up mine a bit — but it’s worth it if you want a bit of a challenge. Here’s a great video of Joan Nathan doing it. She starts at about the 2:50 mark. I discovered, a little too late, that it’s helpful to actually say each step out loud as you’re doing it.

makes 1 loaf

2¼ teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
¼ cup plus ½ tablespoon sugar
¾ cup lukewarm water
¼ cup vegetable or other neutral oil
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
½ tablespoon salt
4 – 4½ cups  all-purpose flour

Egg wash
1 egg
1 teaspoon water

You can make this one of two ways — in a stand mixer or by hand. I chose to start in a stand mixer and finish kneading it by hand. I’ve included both methods below.

Stand mixer
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, dissolve yeast and ½ tablespoon sugar in ¾ cup lukewarm water (be careful not to use hot water, otherwise it will kill the yeast) until slightly foamy. If using instant yeast, it should happen very quickly. If using active dry, it may take 5-10  minutes. Turn on the machine and stir in oil, then beat in 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk, one at a time, with the remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour, one cup at a time, until it holds together. It will be fairly sticky. I ended up using 4 cups of flour. If it ends up being too dry, add water a tablespoon a time.

By hand
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and ½ tablespoon sugar in ¾ cup lukewarm water (be careful not to use hot water, otherwise it will kill the yeast) until slightly foamy. If using instant yeast, it should happen very quickly. If using active dry, it may take 5-10  minutes. Whisk in oil, then beat in 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk, one at a time, with the remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour, one cup at a time, until it holds together. It will be fairly sticky. I ended up using 4 cups of flour. If it ends up being too dry, add water a tablespoon a time.

Both methods
Turn dough onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth and ever so slightly tacky. It should feel pretty silky and should bounce back when poked with a finger. Place the ball of dough in a greased or oiled bowl, turn it over to coat the other side, cover with plastic, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Gently punch down the dough, then cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half hour.

To form the challah, you can cut the dough into three equal pieces and make a simple braid, or you can make a 6-braided challah: remove the dough from the bowl and cut it into six equal pieces. Roll each into a strand about 12 inches long and 1½ inches thick. Place the six strands in a row, parallel to each other, and pinch the top of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over two strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over two strands. Move the second strand from the right over to the far left. Repeat, continuing to braid until you can braid no more. Tuck the ends underneath and move the braided loaf to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Beat the remaining egg with a teaspoon of water until smooth, and brush it over the loaf. At this point, you can freeze your challah, then defrost for 5 hours when ready to bake. If baking same-day, simply let the loaf rise in a warm place again for 1 hour.

45 minutes into this final rise, preheat oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center. Before baking, brush the loaf again with another coat of egg wash, making sure to get in all the crevices that were hidden before it rose again.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Cool on a rack before cutting.

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