Last year, after Passover, around the time I made my first functional sourdough starter (there was a short lived and failed attempt based on a newspaper article c. 2006) I also began making challah every week. I had made it occasionally before with mixed results. I tried different recipes from various sources and although they were good after a fashion i.e. when they had just been baked and were very fresh, I never liked them more than the ones I bought from the local bakeries; usually Daniel’s in Temple Fortune. I wondered what the difference was between the bakery recipes and the recipes I was using. I have still to find a satisfactory answer to this question so if you can shed any light do comment! It had to be either one of two things; the bakeries were using an incredible recipe combined with expert techniques that was vastly different to the contents of my recipes. Or they were using some type of preservative or dough improver/conditioner to get the soft texture and keeping qualities evident in their loaves. I hope it’s the former and fear it is the latter.
I decided that it must be possible to make amazing challah at home. Not just good or passable but beautiful challah with depth of flavour; soft in the middle with good keeping qualities. Challah that I would prefer to eat and to feed my family over and above any that can be bought in North West London or anywhere else. I wanted to know exactly what was in it and to be proud of it. I think I’m getting there. I can’t stop tweaking the recipe though. It seems there are endless combinations of ingredient proportions or changes to be made to kneading time and proving time. There have been some disasters along the way and I won’t claim this as the definitive or best possible recipe for homemade challah but I will tell you that it is beautiful. Wholesome, complex and impressive. And not difficult but absorbing and flexible. I have made many good versions that were variations on the recipe below and there are innumerable changes still to be made. Reading my previous recipe I can see how much it has evolved since I wrote it.
In my world, Friday is the hardest day; cakes are in demand for the weekend, my son’s nursery finishes early and there is dinner to make and of course challah to squeeze into the baking schedule around the cakes and biscuits. The flexibility of the recipe is also the reason it has kept my attention for all this time and why it will continue to do so. Make it your own and keep searching for your favourite version. I am pleased at the thought of a lifetime of Fridays spent preparing for Shabbat and thankful that it gives me the opportunity to bake this beautiful bread.
The significance of making my sourdough starter and baking challah weekly in the same period was that it occurred to me that the two probably could, and most likely had, been merged into one. I had been using fresh yeast which was giving better results than dried. I was making sourdough and enjoying the results; the extraordinary flavour that comes from giving the bread time and gentle attention. It seems logical that there is a link between the necessity of preparing challah in good time for the Sabbath and utilising an overnight rise so the greater part of the process has been completed the day before and the loaves are baked and ready for the table sooner rather than later on a Friday. Google demonstrates that this is not a novel idea. This wonderful article indicates a historical link between sourdough and challah. I wonder also if the yeast created as a by product of brewing was used too. Authenticity isn’t exactly the point though and as a home based cooking tradition, extensive and good quality published information on challah seems to be hard to find. I imagine that the best challah being baked around the world is being baked by people who are the least likely to offer the details online. So I decided incorporating sourdough into the recipe was a good way to direct my focus.
I tried, and oh how I wanted them to work; recipes that were leavened only with wild yeast. There are a few popular versions of these recipes around the web and I tried them all. Some made good bread but it was not what I wanted from challah. They were sour where I wanted sweetness and dense when I wanted a a soft, easily torn crumb. They lost definition during proving and baking and were too flat and not pretty enough. I have seen photos of other peoples efforts and they look magnificent. I wanted to be a purist and rise my challah without ingredients that are recent additions to the bakers tool box – challah must pre date commercial yeast production! But I couldn’t make it work.
And so I offer you my best, to date, recipe for wonderful challah. Fresh yeast and sourdough starter have provided my best results yet. A couple of weeks ago I did a simultaneous test of a recipe risen purely with fresh yeast alongside an otherwise identical recipe that contained sourdough starter. They looked similar and had a fairly similar texture. If you don’t have starter then it is still a good recipe without it. But the flavour of the loaves made with sourdough too was so much more interesting. It kept better and it was better. I recommend it. If you are local you can gladly have some of my starter. Or make your own. Or borrow some from a friend or acquaintance. At some point do try it as written, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Challah with sourdough.
For the dough:
100g refreshed white sourdough starter; it should be mild and lively. If you don’t (yet!) have some starter, omit it and reduce the flour by 30g.
20g fresh yeast (Organic if possible)
450g strong white flour (or 370g white and 80g wholemeal is very nice too)
120g filtered water
120g egg, lightly beaten; consisting of 3 yolks and 1 whole egg
60g demerara sugar
60g mild olive oil or sunflower oil
A whole egg beaten with a little water for glazing (Or use the retained egg whites if you like a pale delicate looking colour for the finished loaves)
30g approx. sesame seeds, toasted if you have the time – they have a much more vivid flavour this way. Or poppy seeds for sprinkling.
Gently combine the starter, fresh yeast, water and 100g of the flour in the bowl of your free standing mixer and leave to start activating while you weigh out the remaining ingredients. I sometimes leave it for awhile but it can be used straight away too.
Using kitchen scales; weigh the egg and yolks, sugar, oil and salt into a jug. Weigh out the remaining flour in a bowl. Mix all dough ingredients into the yeast mixture and once fully combined, mix on a low to medium speed for 4 minutes. The dough should have medium gluten development – so when stretched it will form a window but one that tears quite easily. It will still be fairly sticky but not wet. If you knead by hand then do so without adding any extra flour (use a scraper to keep moving the dough off the counter) until you reach the same stage.
Note: The challah gets 3 rises and a lot of handling during the process. I discovered that avoiding overly developing the gluten at the very beginning contributes significantly to the softness of the crumb at the end. If you over knead it (many recipes suggest 10 minutes) then the finished result is quite dry. Conversely it does need some kneading or it won’t hold its shape for plaiting and baking!
Place in a large, gently oiled bowl or plastic container, cover with plastic wrap and leave for around 2 hours or until doubled in size. Be patient – this first rise takes the longest. The dough gets livelier as you go on.
Do a full stretch and fold on a lightly floured counter. After this you can see how it has already developed since immediately after the kneading; it starts to feel smooth. This is a good video to see the stretch and fold process in action.
Place back in the bowl, cover and transfer to the fridge.
Note: I often make the dough around 9pm on a Thursday and get it in the fridge by midnight. I then take it out at about 9am – 10am on the Friday morning for shaping. I think around 8-10 hours is optimum. But if you need to take it out after 6 hours or need to stretch the timing out a bit longer then it doesn’t seem to affect the final result. You can also do this 2nd rise at room temperature if you are baking beginning to end in one day. Just wait for it to double in size – it will be quicker this time though, around an hour.
In the morning the dough should be doubled or a little more than doubled. I handle it cold but you can let it warm up a little first. Turn gently onto a lightly floured counter and divide with a scraper into as many pieces as you need strands. So for two 6 strand plaits you need 12 pieces.
If I’m feeling pedantic I weigh them so they are all the same weight but more often that not, pressed for time I do it by eye. I roll them into tight balls using the palm of one hand. If you do this on a surface with no flour on it but the top of the piece of dough floured then the circular motion and traction with the counter tightens up the ball and it sort of comes together in your hand. Try not to get much extra flour into the dough at this stage. Pop the dozen balls on a lightly floured surface, cover and leave to rest for 20 minutes. This relaxes the dough so it is easier to roll out the strands without them resisting and springing back into short sausage shapes.
To roll the strands, shape the dough first. Take a ball of dough and flatten it into a rough circle. Fold one edge to the middle and then the other edge to meet it in the middle. Then fold the whole piece in half and pinch the edges closed. Roll on a barely floured surface – you need some traction to get the length but it shouldn’t stick either. As it is such a soft dough this is easier when the dough is cold rather than at room temperature.
Roll from the center of the strands outwards with even pressure from both hands. You don’t want them really long and thin or the challah doesn’t get enough height. Taper the ends as you finish rolling as this helps with the final shape of the braided loaf.
Keep all the pieces as uniform as possible. Lay on a lightly floured surface until you have 6 strands and then plait them. If you look back at my first challah recipe there is a great braiding video that I found very useful (also, do practice with wool or string to get better without using uncooperative dough!). Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and repeat for the remaining challah.
Cover lightly with plastic wrap – a light dusting of flour may help to stop it sticking but I don’t find it a problem when the loaves are properly shaped and the dough sufficiently developed. Keep an eye on it though – the last thing you want it your beautiful challot being fully proved and having to ruin the shape by pulling firmly stuck plastic wrap off them.
As you are doing the final proof with dough that is still a little cold it will take 1 1/2 to 2 hours for the final proof. You are looking for the dough to hold an indent when pressed lightly. It will be wobbly like jelly but not deflating. Choosing the perfect moment takes practice. Fully proving it before baking – unlike with other types of bread where you want some of that final rise to happen in the oven – helps keep the shape of the plaits so they don’t burst apart when placed in the oven.
After about an hour, preheat your oven to Gas 3.5/160ºC. A gentle heat also helps with retaining the shape and avoids it burning on the outside while you wait for the middle to cook.
When fully risen, brush gently with the egg glaze. Sprinkle with your chosen seeds and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. Give it a bit longer if you like a really dark crust. Cool completely before tearing and eating.
Challah is good with everything. I love it with just butter and also with avocado and tomato for breakfast the next day. Or with hummus!
I find it keeps very well when made with the sourdough – it is still soft for 2-3 days and makes great toast for another day or two after that.