Baking Challah

Whether you make a simple braid or an intricate shape, challah is a crowd-pleasing loaf.

What’s Challah?
Challah is rich egg bread served on the Jewish Sabbath and on holidays or other celebrations. Braided challah is generally served on Fridays at Shabbat dinner. Round, coiled loaves are prepared for Rosh Hashanah, and for Yom Kippur, bakers form the bread into hands, ladders, or birds.

Challah I

Photo by doczues

Making the Dough

A heavy-duty mixer or bread machine will make quick work of incorporating all your ingredients into the dough. Like all enriched doughs–sweet rolls, brioche, and other recipes containing eggs, butter, or dairy products–challah takes time and patience. The yeast needs a long time to develop in order to leaven the heavy mixture. Don’t rush the rising process.

Shaping the Dough
After your dough has gone through the rising stages, it’s ready to be shaped. For a two-loaf challah recipe, divide the dough in half. Wrap half the dough with plastic and refrigerate it while you shape the other half. Divide the dough half into three equal portions for braiding. Shape the portions into rounds and let them rest for about 10 minutes for easier rolling; cover the rounds with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out.

  • Roll the three dough rounds into ropes. If the dough starts to tear, stop and let it rest for a few minutes before proceeding.
  • Pinch the three ends together to seal, and braid; be gentle, and don’t pull the dough strands too tightly or stretch them.
  • When you’ve finished, pinch the ends together to seal. Tuck the ends under the loaf to hide the seam.
  • Let the loaf rise on parchment-lined baking sheets, covered with plastic wrap, until doubled in bulk. Meanwhile, braid the remaining half of the dough.
  • To test if the loaf’s ready to bake, flour your index and middle fingers, and gently poke the sides of your loaf. The indentations should remain; if the dough springs back, it needs to rise more.
  • Brush with egg wash and top with seeds, if desired.

Bake according to recipe instructions, until the bread is deep mahogany in color.

Different Shapes
Beautiful four-, five-, and six-strand braids make impressively complex loaves, but require a high amount of skill from the baker. A similar effect can be achieved by stacking one small three-strand braid atop a larger one before letting the dough rise.

Rosh Hashanah: Round

The round loaf made for Rosh Hashanah is the simplest to make of all of the High Holy Days challah shapes. If you are using a standard 2-loaf challah recipe, divide the dough into two equal portions and shape into rounds.

  • Roll each portion into a long 18×2-inch “rope.” Taper one end of each rope so one end is thick, the other thin.
  • Place the thicker end of a rope in the center of a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet and coil the rest of the dough around the center.
  • When the length of dough runs out, tuck the thinner end underneath the coil and pinch to seal.
  • Repeat with the remaining length of dough. Proof, egg wash, and bake as directed.

Yom Kippur: Ladder
Prepare a standard 2-loaf challah recipe, letting the dough rise as directed in the recipe. When you’re ready to shape the loaves, divide the dough into two equal portions. Wrap half the dough in plastic and refrigerate it while you shape the other half. For a three-rung ladder:

  • Cut the dough in half. Divide one half into two pieces, for the sides of the ladder, and the other half into three pieces, for the rungs.
  • Shape the pieces into balls, pressing out any air bubbles.
  • Form the larger portions into two long ropes and lay them parallel to each other on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.
  • Roll the remaining dough into shorter ropes. Pinch the rungs to the sides of the ladder to seal.

Brush the dough with egg wash and let it rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes or until it’s ready to bake. (Poke the side of the loaf with your fingertip: the indentation should remain. If it springs back, it needs to rise a little longer.) Meanwhile, shape the second loaf.

  • When the first loaf is ready to bake, brush it again with egg wash and sprinkle with seeds, if desired. Bake as directed in the recipe. Repeat with the second loaf.

Yom Kippur: Hand
Prepare a standard 2-loaf challah recipe, letting the dough rise as directed in the recipe. When you’re ready to shape the loaves, divide the dough into two equal portions. Wrap half the dough in plastic and refrigerate it while you shape the other half.

  • Cut off a small piece of dough–this will be the palm of the hand. Separate the remaining dough into three portions, one a little smaller than the other two–this will be the thumb.
  • Roll the three pieces of dough into ropes, tapering the end of the thumb rope.
  • Dust the ropes with flour to prevent them from sticking together.
  • Bend one rope almost in half, to form the middle and ring fingers; place it on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Wrap the next rope around the first one to form the index and pinky fingers. Attach the thumb, pinching to seal.

Use a rolling pin to flatten the remaining portion of dough into a small round.

  • Lay the round over the base of the fingers to form the palm, and pinch to seal.
  • Brush the dough with egg wash and let it rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes or until it’s ready to bake.
  • Before baking, brush the loaf with another coat of egg wash and bake as directed.

Challah Symbolism
During the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate the beginning of the New Year at the same time they atone for sins committed in the past year.

  • On Rosh Hashanah, the mood of celebration and hope is reflected in the round shape of the challah. The circular form symbolizes hope for a smooth year (one without any interruptions of sorrow) to come.
  • Raisins are believed to express hope for, and bring sweetness to, the New Year.
  • During Yom Kippur, the mood is focused more on atonement for past sins than celebration. The hand, ladder, and bird shapes represent the hope the prayers and atonement will be relayed to heaven, so the Jewish people might ascend to great heights in the coming year.