Lately, I’ve been captivated by the idea of becoming more than myself, a better version of myself. I want to move with the force of the ocean, shine bright like the sun and effectuate good changes in the world around me. Leave my mark. This time of year, during the Jewish holidays, it’s fairly normal to look inward and reflect. Even the challahs on the table change shape during these holidays. They are round instead of braided–symbolizing the circle of life. For me, the best way to become more than I am is to learn and create as much as I can and to do my best to change with the seasons. Welcoming and letting go are part of same concept, cloaked in different vestures. Seasons, people, ideas, thoughts, judgments. We welcome and let go of them all and in doing so we expand and shrink, in a necessary way, like lungs providing air to the body or an accordion making sweet and sorrowful music. Creating a challah seems like the perfect start to a new year and to help me to become what I want to be. It’s a great metaphor. The dough rises no matter how much you punch it down. The more you knead it the more it expands–nearly doubling in size when you let it rest–because the yeast, like the human spirit, just keeps persisting. I also fell in love with the idea of joining the ranks of bread bakers from history, grandmothers, grandfathers, kneading with their rough hands, creating something from nothing and nailing that perfect brown crust.
This is my first experience with yeast and bread and I’m thrilled. It turned out well, garnering the approval of even the harshest of critics. As with anything I don’t know about, I did tons of research (likely too much) to make sure I did it right. There’s so much science behind making a challah, though it’s relatively easy.
Lookoutnow, we about to geek out! Before starting I read tons of recipes from the likes of Molly, Ngan, some random bubbes on youtube, the “helpful comments” section from allrecipes, my grandma’s go-to cookbook that she won in a raffle and the all-knowing Ruhlman –who basically taught me that with the right ratios in hand, you can play around and still pull off your task. You can adjust the amounts you make and you can start experimenting with different flours, fats, sweeteners, and liquids. Once you have the numbers, you can make the bread any way you like. Oh, and tinker I did. I changed up the flour, the egg yolk content, added honey and agave nectar for sweetness, oil for ease of handling, fed the yeast some sugar (in room temperature-ish water) to proof it and made a total mess of my kitchen counter as I learned the science behind kneading.
When flour and water are combined and kneaded, the gliadin and glutenin proteins in the flour expand and form strands of gluten, which gives bread its texture. (To aid gluten production, many recipes use bread flour, which is higher in protein than all-purpose flour.) The kneading process warms and stretches these gluten strands, eventually creating a springy and elastic dough. If bread dough is not kneaded enough, it will not be able to hold the tiny pockets of gas (CO2) created by the yeast, and will collapse, leaving a heavy and dense loaf. Baking science. Oh yes, I also learned that the yolks are the key to the attractive color of a challah and also make a major contribution to the soft texture because they add fat and lecithin, which tenderize the bread. Whites add protein; while that’s a good thing, they also dry out the bread. I hope you’re totally psyched out now. Class dismissed.
With all this in my mind, I felt like I was taking my school exams again. I couldn’t sleep and got out of my bed just to knead the bread more before its first rise in case I had been too timid the first time. I made these loaves over the course of two days, letting them rise overnight and through the next day so when I came home from work I could punch them down and let them rise again, expand, then bake for 27 mins or until they pass the “thump test.” I really surprised myself with this challah and can’t wait to make a challah french toast with the leftovers. I think this is the beginning of something for me. Possibly an expansion of self, of knowledge, or just a way to make the neighbors wonder who bakes bread at midnight. This is a process that is totally worth the trouble.
Whole Wheat Challah adapted partly from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day: Fast and Easy Recipes for World-Class Breads via Michael Ruhlman with guidance from all linked above.
- 2 ½ cups lukewarm water about 95 degrees
- 1 packet dry active yeast
- 8–10 egg yolks
- 5 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used canola)
- 1/2 cup honey or agave nectar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (optional)
- 5 ½ cups unbleached flour
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 ½ teaspoons salt or 4 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
- 1 egg white for egg wash
- 2 tablespoons water for egg wash
- 2 tablespoons sesame or poppyseeds for garnish, or raisins for the dough
Proof the yeast: Combine the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a 5-quart mixer and whisk together to dissolve. Add 1 tablespoon sugar. It should start to bubble after 10 minutes or so. Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla, if using, and whisk together to break up. Add the salt. Add the flour one cup at a time, beating after each addition, graduating to kneading with hands as dough thickens. Add the optional raisins now. Knead until smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Use floured hands to transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, sprinkle the top lightly with flour and knead by hand for a couple of minutes until the dough is soft and supple. It should be tacky but not sticky.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, or divide the dough in half or in as many portions as you plan to bake, and place in oiled bowls. Cover and immediately place in the refrigerator. The dough should rest at least overnight and can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days. Some recipes say it will double in size after 2 hrs. If this happens, go on with it. I waited overnight.
On Baking Day:
Remove the dough from the fridge approximately 2 hours before you plan to bake. Transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of braids you want to use or shape into loaves, or dinner rolls.
For a circle, flatten each piece with your hand, then roll into cigar shaped lengths. Roll each piece once, then return to the first piece to roll it into a rope approximately 10 to 14 inches/25-36 centimeters long. Circle it around itself and tuck into the bottom. Place the loaves on sheet pans lined with parchment paper.
Make the egg wash and brush each loaf with the wash. Reserve the rest of the wash in the fridge, and let the loaves rise uncovered for about an hour. They will not have risen much at this point. Brush the loaves again with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds or a combination of both.
Let the loaves rise for another hour until they increase to about 1 ½ times their size.
15 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F./177 degrees C. or 300 degrees F./149 degrees C. for convection.
Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom and the internal temp is around 190 degrees F./88 degrees C. in the center. If you used a whole egg wash, the crust will get darker than with the egg white wash, so don’t be fooled into thinking the bread is done until it passes the thump and temperature test.
Cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving. Enjoy!