Ima’s Challah

by rivka on November 7, 2012 · 26 comments

in bread, breakfast and brunch, comfort food

Fresh from the archives, first published October 27, 2007: it’s my Ima’s challah, with new pictures and better instructions. Enjoy!

Growing up, there was one option for challah in town. Every Friday, my mom would swing by the local market and pick up two loaves from a nearby kosher bakery. The challah was truly uneventful: it was never dense enough, far too airy, not sweet or eggy, and usually even a bit crumbly. A lame excuse for challah, if you ask me.

My mother started making her own around the time I left the house, and she’s never gone back. Before she had the kitchenaid, she did it all by hand, which is actually less time-consuming and labor intensive than one might think. Now that she has the stand mixer, though, challah is a snap.

Over the years, I’ve collected three fantastic recipes for challah. I used to make each with some regularity, but for several years now, I’ve only been making my mother’s. Her basic recipe makes 2 small challot or 1 very large one, which is perfect for me, since I really don’t need all that extra bread lying around (not that I would struggle to find things to do with it…. cough cough french toast cough cough). Second, it’s just sweet enough without being cloying. Third, it’s very easy to substitute some whole wheat flour and wheat gluten for white flour, which makes for a healthier, more rustic loaf of bread. And finally, she’s my mom. Moms’ recipes are best.

A warning about this challah. Back in college, I once brought challah to a meal for 17 people. I made three loaves, in case the first two went quickly. Sure enough, we sat down to dinner and within an instant, both loaves were gone. I offered to bring out the third: “no, no, don’t. I couldn’t possibly. I have to save room for dinner.” Etc. After some more urging, I left well enough alone. After dinner, bellies stuffed, we all migrated over to the couch. I popped into the kitchen to help clean up….and found three girls holding the third challah between them, ripping off big pieces and devouring the loaf as though dinner had never happened. This stuff is addictive.

Of course, I’ve made my tweaks to the recipe. I’ve settled on substituting whole wheat flour for 1/3 of the flour in the recipe, which gives the challah that rustic quality without sacrificing texture. Because I use a modest amount of whole wheat, I don’t add any wheat gluten.

I’ve also taken to making this recipe with melted butter. If you love butter’s flavor in pastries and brioche, you’ll love it here. And while I’m at it, I’ve started to use melted butter mixed with cinnamon and sugar to brush the loaves before baking. That makes the challah feel like a truly special treat.

Play around; see what you love. This has been my challah recipe for about 7 years, and I hope it can be yours, too.

Ima’s Challah
Makes 2 smallish challot or 1 large

As I said, lots of options here. Whole wheat, or white (I’ve offered substitutions for those who want to use whole wheat flour at the end of the recipe); eggwash, or cinnamon-butter; 1 rise, or 2. Do what works for you.

1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 packet (2-1/2 teaspoons) yeast

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil, olive oil, or melted butter
1/4 cup water
2 eggs
pinch cardamom, optional
For brushing:
1 egg
1 tablespoon honey


3 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar

Put 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl. Add the teaspoon of sugar, sprinkle the yeast overtop, and leave it to proof for five minutes.

Mix flour, salt, and 1/4 cup 2 tablespoons sugar, and cardamom in a large bowl or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir to incorporate or blend on low speed.

While yeast is proofing, mix wet ingredients together.

Add yeast mixture to the flour, then add wet ingredients to the bowl, and mix using a wooden spoon or fork, or blend on low-medium speed, until the mixture looks uniform.

If using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and knead the dough for about ten minutes, until everything is well incorporated. Make sure flour at the very bottom of the bowl gets incorporated as well – this may require a bit of mixing and coaxing with your hands. If kneading the dough entirely by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and begin kneading, adding flour by the tablespoon as necessary, until dough is stretchy but not sticky, about 8-10 minutes.

When dough is fully kneaded, transfer it to a large bowl (if using the bowl in which you mixed the bread, you should rinse and dry it first). Cover the dough with a slightly moist towel or a loosely-fitted piece of plastic wrap. Set dough in a warm spot to rise for 45 minutes, until doubled in size. Gently deflate dough, and set aside for another 45-minute rise. Alternatively, let dough rise for 1 hour, until doubled, and then proof the dough for about 25 minutes after it’s braided, before baking. I tend to do the latter, since I like to proof it.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

After the rise(s), the dough should be soft and more flexible than before. Halve dough, then use a dough hook to cut each half into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into a log almost 1-foot long. Braid the logs together to create your loaf. Trick: I start in the middle and do not pinch the top ends together before starting. After I’ve braided from halfway down to the bottom of the loaf, I turn the loaf over and upside down, and braid the other half. This way, both ends look identical. Tuck the ends beneath the loaf when braiding is finished.

Put each loaf on its own lined baking sheet, or side by side on a large baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches between them. If using the egg for brushing, mix egg and honey to make an egg wash and lightly brush over each of the challot. Alternatively, mix the melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon together and brush that over the challot.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-22 minutes, until challot are golden and baked through.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

**You can easily substitute up to 50% whole wheat flour, use the same amount as white, but add one tablespoon wheat gluten for every cup of flour. This ensures that the bread will have that same chewy but soft texture as with white flour. You can find wheat gluten at Whole Foods or Trader Joes — and perhaps at your local supermarket as well. As for which whole wheat flour, my mom recommends King Arthur organic white whole wheat flour: in her words, “it gives the white bread consistency with whole wheat nutrition.”

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