Challah is a special bread in Jewish cuisine. It’s usually braided and is typically eaten on Jewish holidays and the sabbath. I am told that the three strands of the braid symbolize truth, peace, and justice. And the poppy seeds are said to symbolize the manna that fell from heaven. Challah is very similar to a Finnish bread called Pulla which is what I grew up eating. In fact, in one of my very favorite bread books, the breads are listed together along with the exchanges. For pulla milk vs. water, sugar vs. honey, and the addition of cardamom seed. Since this pandemic started, and as we have sheltered at home, I’ve been doing a lot more baking than usual. There are only two of us sheltering in this house and I’m working on my fifth five pound bag of flour. My daughter and son-in-law, also sheltering at home, have been doing as much bread baking as me, maybe more. I recently had a copy of my fav bread book sent to them.
My grandmother made the best pulla. She would make several loaves at a time and whenever anyone came to visit she would put the coffee on and slice some pulla. It was a staple at her house. When we were kids we called her bread biscuite…some kind of bad Finnglish. Actually, maybe not Finnish at all, but it’s what we called it. My mother-in-law, Goldie, made the best challah. All of her baked goods were amazing. My husband remembers his mother making challah every Friday, covering the braids with a towel while they proofed, and saying a prayer over them. Whenever we would visit her there was always challah. I would never profess to baking like my grandmother or my mother-in-law but I sure love making the effort.
2 tsp dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 T of warm water
3 1/2 cups unbleached AP flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 T honey
2 eggs beaten
4 T butter melted
poppy seeds (optional)
In a small bowl sprinkle the yeast into the water and allow about 5 minutes for it to dissolve. Mix the flour and salt in a larger mixing bowl making a well in the center. Once the yeast has dissolved pour it into the well and draw just enough flour into the water and yeast to form a soft paste.
Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow it to sponge for about 20 minutes until it’s frothy and risen.
Add the honey, beaten eggs, and melted butter to the flour well. Mix in the flour to form a soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic and shiny. About 10 minutes.
From shaggy to smooth and shiny.
Put the dough into a lightly buttered bowl turning the dough once to coat the top. Cover with your towel and allow the dough to rise until it is doubled in size, one and a half to two hours.
Once the dough has risen, punch it down and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Divide the dough into three equal balls and, with your hands, roll each piece to form a rope about 16 inches long. I weigh my dough sections out in an attempt to make them more equal in size. Otherwise I end up with a fat strand and a skinny one. Braid the strands together tucking in both ends. Put the braid on a lightly buttered baking sheet or use a sheet of parchment paper.
Cover the braid with a towel and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Whisk together one egg yolk and 1 T of water and brush the egg wash over the braid. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if you choose. Preheat your oven to 350.
Bake for 35-45 minutes until golden and hollow sounding when tapped underneath.
Cool on a wire rack, slice, and enjoy. This bread makes excellent toast and French toast.
NOTE: I think I have a little edge in the bread baking department because I always use my grandmother’s bread bowls. I think she would be happy about that.
If anyone is interested in the bread book I referenced, the authors are Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno and the title of the book is Ultimate Bread. Happy bread baking.