MAMA HINDA’S CHALLAH
- 3 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1/2 cup warm water (100° to110°F)
- 2 3/4 teaspoons (1 package plus 2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling the bowl
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt
- 1/3 cup raisins (optional)
- Egg wash: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water
- Poppy seeds (optional)
- Set aside 2 tablespoons of the flour. Place the remaining flour in the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a flat paddle or a dough hook. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in 1/4 cup of the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and add 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Using a fork, stir the water, yeast, and sugar together gently, keeping the mixture in the well (don’t worry if a little flour becomes incorporated). Let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes.
- In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, the 1/4 cup oil, the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and the salt together with a fork. Add the egg mixture and the remaining 1/4 cup warm water to the flour mixture, and beat on low speed until incorporated. Then beat on medium speed until smooth and silky, 5 to 10 minutes. The dough should feel slightly sticky and, to quote Jeffrey Nathan in Adventures in Jewish Cooking, “like a baby’s tush.” If it is too sticky, add the reserved 2 tablespoons flour (or more if necessary), 1 tablespoon at a time, and continue to mix for a few more minutes.
- Oil a large bowl and place the ball of dough in it, turning the dough so it is oiled all over. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place until the dough has almost doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour. (Now to find a warm place: Mama Hinda used the top of her stove, but she had a pilot light. My garage on a summer’s day does the trick for me, but I have also used my oven, preheated at the lowest setting and then turned off.)
- When the dough has almost doubled, punch it down and knead it by hand for 1 to 2 minutes, incorporating the raisins, if using. For a braided challah, separate the dough into three equal portions and roll each portion out to form a strand 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches wide and about 12 inches long (lightly flour your work surface only if necessary). Braid the strands (see Challah Tips, below.) For a spiral Rosh Hashanah challah, roll the dough into a single rope about 34 inches long. Beginning at one end, wind the rope from the center of the spiral outward, keeping the center slightly elevated, like a turban. Tuck the end under.
- Lightly grease a baking sheet or, better yet, line it with parchment paper. Place the shaped dough on the prepared baking sheet, cover it with a slightly dampened cloth, and allow it to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. and line it with parchment paper.
Brush the top of the loaf with the egg wash, and sprinkle it with poppy seeds, if using. Bake until the top is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers, 25 to 30 minutes.
Transfer the loaf to a wire rack and allow it to cool completely.
Made without preservatives, home-baked bread is an ephemeral pleasure, best eaten the day it’s baked. After that it makes wonderful toast; or you can save thick slices for French toast . Use leftover challah to make your own bread crumbs or challah chips.
I like to leave the cut challah, cut side down, on a breadboard for the day. You can refrigerate it, wrapped well in plastic wrap and then in a resealable plastic bag, for up to a week, but I prefer to freeze it after the first day: Slice the loaf, placing plastic wrap between the slices and around the loaf, wrap it in a resealable plastic bag, and freeze for up to 1 month.
- To measure the flour, spoon it lightly into a cup and level it off with a knife.
- Remember that the amount of flour you need will vary from day to day, even using the same recipe in the same kitchen. Aim for a slightly tacky dough that does not stick to your hands.
- To eliminate air pockets and produce even strands, do as Maggie Glezer suggests in A Blessing of Bread: For best results, use a kitchen scale to weigh the dough and divide it evenly. Before braiding, roll each portion out as thin as possible, using a rolling pin, to form a round. Then roll the thin round up tightly, forming a strand. To lengthen the strand, do not pull; instead, push down, using the fleshy part of your palms, which allows the dough to extend itself. Then braid the strands.
- When braiding challah, if you start from the middle and work out to both ends, you will get a neater loaf.
- Don’t overbraid, or your loaf will be flat. Five twists should be plenty.
- When you have finished braiding, squeeze the ends of the loaf slightly toward the middle to make for a higher loaf. An 8- to 9-inch-long loaf should rise to a grand size.
- To avoid deflating the loaf, use a pastry brush with soft bristles to glaze it with the egg wash.
- The dough can be prepared a day ahead. Place the unrisen ball of dough in a large oiled bowl, turning the dough so it is oiled all over, and cover and refrigerate. When ready to bake, bring the dough to room temperature, set it aside to rise and continue with the recipe 3. Alternatively, you can refrigerate the shaped loaf, covered. As it returns to room temperature, the dough will continue to rise. Once the loaf has risen, you can bake it.