Comes Friday and grocery stores and bakeries' shelves in Israel are stocked up with challah bread. These days Challah comes in many shapes and sizes (and grain blends), but when I was a child in the '70s and '80s, there was only one standard square-shaped challah. Traditionally, challah bread is made with no dairy ingredients, so it can be eaten in the Shabbat dinner that includes meat dishes. Some challah recipes call for eggs, which makes the bread richer, tastier, and more worthy of its prominent place at the Shabbat table. It is believed that hundreds of years ago, weekday challah bread was baked with no eggs and oil, which were expensive ingredients, and it was most likely shaped like round bread. To distinguish the Shabbat bread from the everyday loaves, eggs, and oil were added and the dough was shaped into braids.
After we relocated to the US, I started to bake challah at home. It's relatively easy to make bread, you can't really get it wrong (the only time I failed was when I accidentally used an over-a-year expired yeast...oops). This recipe yields 2 large challahs, I usually shape half into a loaf, and the other divide into 8 pieces and make knotted or round rolls, which I freeze and use later for my kid’s school sandwiches. You can also use half of the dough to make a dessert, by rolling it into a thin layer and spreading a sweet filling like a chocolate spread or a jam.
7 cups (1 kg) all-purpose unbleached flour
2 Tablespoon (18 gr) instant dry yeast (if using active dry yeast, dissolve it first and rehydrate in water, and allow more time to rise)
1 2/3 cups (400 gr) water
5 Tablespoons (75 gr) oil
2 eggs + 1 egg for egg wash
1/2 cup (100 gr) sugar, or 4 Tablespoons (88-100gr) date syrup/maple/agave
1 (15gr) Tablespoon salt
Sesame seeds/other for sprinkle on top (optional)
In the mixer bowl combine flour with dry yeast, sugar (or any other sweetener you are using), oil, and water. Mix at low speed for 3 mins.
Add the salt, and mix for 7 min at medium-low speed, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
Release the dough from the hook attachment, and form a ball. Dust with just a bit of flour and cover the bowl with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap. Allow it to rise for 30-45 minutes or until about doubled in size
Gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly (lightly! Too much flour will dry out the dough and it will be impossible to mold it ) floured work surface.
Divide the dough into 2 pieces, then each piece into 2-3 pieces, depending on your desired challah shape: you can either use 2 strands and twist them together or use 3 pieces to make a three-strand braided loaf.
Roll each piece into a strand 12-15" long. If the dough starts to shrink back as you roll, cover it and let it rest for about 10 minutes (that short rest will give the gluten a chance to relax and become flexible again). Then, resume rolling.
Shape/braid the loaf. Then pick it up and place it on a parchment-lined baking pan or in a greased loaf pan.
Cover the loaf loosely with plastic wrap or a towel, and let it rise at room temperature for about an hour. Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 375°F.
Brush the bread with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame if desired.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust turns into deep golden brown.
The dough can be prepared 8-12 hours ahead. store it in the fridge where it will slowly go through its first rise.
Storage information: Store any leftover challah, well wrapped, at room temperature for several days; freeze for more extended storage. leftovers are perfect for grilled sandwiches or French toast.