For several months now,
I have been baking challah every Friday afternoon. This is, of course, in part because I have spent the better part of the last year falling in love with someone who observes Shabbat every Friday, but that's not the only reason. Making fresh challah is both sensuous (the richness of the eggs combined with the fragrance of good, grassy olive oil makes my mouth water every time) and familiar (I've made it so many times now that I have the ingredient ratios memorized and can do it by feel). Kneading the soft dough (almost a hybrid of pastry and pizza dough) relieves tension and fills me with promise of the weekend ahead.
The toppings and variations are infinite. Once, I topped my braided dough with finely minced onions, poppy seeds, and sea salt. And another time, I pressed fresh, halved figs into the soft dough before baking. Feel free to get creative, and don't forget to make enough to have throughout the weekend-there is no French toast like challah French toast!
1 packet active dry yeast
$1.50 for 3
1 large pinch sugar, plus 1/4 cup
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (use something you enjoy the taste of), plus more for the bowl
3 eggs, divided (two for the bread, one for the egg wash)
$1.50 for 6
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
Sesame and/or poppy seeds
Total cost of ingredients:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Turn it off after it reaches temperature, so that when it's time for the dough to rise, the oven will be warm but not hot.
Lightly flour (or line with parchment paper) a baking sheet and set it aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yeast and sugar into two-thirds cup warm water, and let sit to activate, three to four minutes. (It will become foamy.)
Whisk in the remaining sugar, the olive oil, two of the eggs, and the salt. Continue whisking until completely incorporated.
Slowly add the flour, stirring as you go. Eventually, you should have a soft, rich dough.
Flour a smooth, clean surface (like a countertop or large cuttingboard) and turn the dough out onto it.
Knead the dough for eight to 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Form it into a large ball.
Clean the dough debris out of the bowl you mixed it in, and pour about two tablespoons of olive oil into it.
Place the dough in the oiled ball and roll it around to make sure it is completely covered with oil.
Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and place in the warm (but not hot) oven.
Let rise for one hour or until roughly doubled in size.
Now it's time to weave the challah. There are a few ways to go about this, all of them gorgeous and awesome: You can do it the Deb (of SmittenKitchen) way, the Tori of the Shiksa in the Kitchen way, or you can do it the Gabi Moskowitz, 1989 Graduate of Beth Ami Hebrew School Sunday Challah-Making Class way, which is to sort of braid it like you would hair, and then tuck the messy bits under so no one can see them (which, for the record, I also do with my hair).
Transfer the braided challah to the prepared baking sheet.
In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg with three tablespoons of water.
Use a pastry brush to brush the dough with a bit of the egg wash, then return the braided challah to the warm oven. Let rise for another 45 minutes. (Save the egg wash, you'll need it again shortly.)
Once it has risen, paint the challah with more of the egg wash, then sprinkle with seeds, if using. Set aside (out of the oven) briefly.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Bake the challah for 30-35 minutes or until golden-brown and hollow-sounding when rapped gently on its bottom.
Let cool slightly, then serve.