This coming Shabbat is typically one when most people make “key or schlissel” challah. While some will bake it in a key shape, others put a key inside. I belong to the latter group, and for this Shabbat I plan to change the usual shape of my challah. This time, I will shape it as Barbara Bensoussan explains in the following video and in her book A Well Spiced Life:
Basic Challah Recipe
This is my best “Challah for Dummies” recipe. One of the biggest mistakes challah novices make is to work too much flour into the dough, since bread dough feels so sticky on the hands, but the result is a heavy loaf better employed as a doorstop. This recipe kneads the dough in a food processor, so you are less likely to make this mistake. The recipe makes one large challah, but since it goes so quickly, you can simply make one loaf, dump out the dough, and repeat the process as many times as you like. In the interests of sneaking some nutrition into my white-bread-loving children, I usually add a tablespoon of wheat germ to the dough.
2 ¼ teaspoons dry yeast (1 package) dissolved in ½ cup very warm water along with ½ teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, preferably high-gluten
2-3 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon wheat germ (optional)
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup water
1 beaten egg for glazing the challah; sesame or poppy seeds for garnishing, if desired
PAM spray and corn meal to grease the pans
Place flour, sugar, salt and wheat germ in the bowl of the food processor and pulse to blend. Add the yeast-and-water mix (it should be foamy after five minutes) and process another 5-10 seconds. Combine an egg and 1/3 cup oil and water into a small bowl; now dump this into the processor and continue processing until the mixture forms a ball around the blades of the machine—this make take 20-30 seconds (if you have a plastic dough knife for your machine, use it; if not, a regular steel blade will also do the trick). Check the dough; if it seems tough and dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water; if it seems too wet and won’t come together, add more flour, ¼ cup at a time.
Let the dough process on a medium-low speed for one minute. Voila! The dough is done. Place into an oiled bowl, turn it once, cover it with a plastic bag, and let it rise until doubled, about an hour and a half (may rise faster if your kitchen is hot).
Punch it down and repeat the rising (it’s not absolutely necessary to do two risings, but I think it makes a smoother loaf). The second rising may go faster than the first. When doubled again, punch down the dough. Shape into a loaf, either by braiding it or, as my mother-in-law does, by rolling it into a long rectangle from which you cut a fringe on one end and roll it up. (I never managed to master braiding with six strands, but an easier, and also very nice, option is to divide the dough into four parts. Braid three of them, then make a skinny braid with the fourth part. Slice a little trough down the length of the big braid with a knife and nestle the smaller braid inside it—this will keep it from sliding off during baking, and makes a pretty double-braided shape.) I like to use aluminum loaf pans to bake my challahs, as the high sides help them rise and maintain a more professional, uniform shape; spray them with Pam and dust with corn meal.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Let your shaped challahs rise at least another half hour, until almost doubled in size. Brush with the beaten egg and top with seeds if desired. Bake at 425 for five minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 375 and bake until golden brown, about another half hour. For a crispier crust, take the challahs out of the pans (carefully!) for the last five minutes of baking. When they’re done, the bottoms will sound hollow when tapped with your finger.
Variation: Whole Wheat Challah
My husband decided he prefers whole wheat challahs, as they’re more nutritious and he finds them easier on the digestion. It’s advisable to mix whole wheat flour with regular bread flour, as the whole wheat flour contains much less gluten and consequently will not rise very well all by itself. You can simply use the recipe above, but substitute half to two-thirds of the white flour with whole wheat flour or even spelt flour.
A Note on Sephardic Shaping
When my mother-in-law visits us, she makes her challah in a shape I had never seen before. Instead of braiding the dough, she manages to create a sort of striped loaf. I soon saw how this was accomplished; she rolls out the dough into a long rectangle. Then she cuts one of the narrow ends into a sort of long fringe. Starting from the opposite, end, she rolls the dough rectangle into a loaf, ending with the “fringes” wrapped around the loaf decoratively. When baked, the fringes puff into a striped pattern.
My husband was familiar with this Moroccan challah shape and immediately surmised that it must have some ancient mystical significance; perhaps there was even a specified number of stripes to cut, like those who have the custom to bake a dozen challah rolls for every Shabbat. But when he asked his mother the reason behind this unusual shape, she merely shrugged. “Who knows?” she said. “I think it’s just a way of making the challah easier to slice.” And indeed, when you bring the striped challahs to the table, the indentations between the stripes make perfect cutting guides!