I grew up on my mother’s double-decker whole wheat challah, a gloriously hearty start to every Shabbat meal. Sometimes she let me help, teaching me how to braid on a Friday afternoon. But for whatever reason, I never learned how to make her recipe (or lack thereof, for she never had one written down).
In college, I lived in the “Kosher Mod,” the on-campus apartment that hosted Shabbat dinners for the Hampshire college community (I’d say the Hampshire college Jewish community, but we had plenty of non-Jewish friends who came, and no-one was ever turned away). My childhood friend Gideon, who was also conveniently my college roommate, baked the challah for these events, using his mother’s recipe for a much sweeter, cakier version. He often did a four-braid or even the occasional six-braid, and his challah was the toast of Hampshire College (heh heh, see what I did there?). But I didn’t learn how to make that either.
But in my first job after college, as an Activity Assistant at an assisted living facility in Newton, I decided that I ought to learn. The facility had a monthly Shabbat service for its Jewish residents, and Challah seemed like a perfect activity for the day before the service: it’s a yeast bread, so you can spend a morning making the dough, let it rise while people are at lunch, and do the braiding and baking in the afternoon as a sensory activity. The challah could become a social centerpiece when it was done, with residents telling their friends, “I helped make that.” Plus everyone agrees that challah is delicious.
So I called my mother and asked for her recipe. But as I mentioned before, she didn’t have a written recipe, she just did it. So she dutifully made one up, and I dutifully wrote it down. Then I ignored it and did what felt right.
It took some time to perfect, and I’ll probably end up tweaking further as the years go by, but seeing as my own mother sometimes asks me to bring some along when we go over for Shabbat dinner, I think the recipe is good enough to share. Now, like my mother, I don’t actually measure my ingredients out when I’m cooking at home. But after enough people asked me for the recipe at work, I felt I ought to take the time to measure it just once, so that’s what I did. I’m pretty confident that if you follow the directions below, you’ll end up with more or less the same challah I do. Which looks like this, by the way:
I figured you’d like to see it.
As I said above, it’s a yeast bread, so it’s perfect for making on a day off, when you may have plenty of errands, but you also have the freedom to schedule them however you like. I still make this challah at work now and then, baking four loves at a time and sharing them with the entire 104-bed facility. That’s a pretty good way to make friends.
It’s also a great activity for doing with kids:
(Picture from December 2014, when my daughter was 2 years old)
So with no further ado, here’s the recipe:
Yield: 4 loaves. Time: about 4 hours (mostly waiting)
-8+ cups of flour
-3/4 cup vegetable oil
-2 tbsp. active dry yeast
-1 cup honey
-1 cup raisins
-2 cups warm water
1) Combine water, yeast with about 1.5 cups of flour and a drop of the honey in a large mixing bowl. Mix well, but don’t worry about small clumps. Cover bowl with a cloth, and let sit for 15-20 minutes in a warm place.
2) Add the oil, the rest of the honey, the raisins and 4 eggs (save the last one for later). Add a cup of flour, and mix until even. Keep adding flour, about a cup at a time (or a handful) until dough is thick and stirring becomes impossible.
3) Add another cup of flour and begin to knead with your hands. Keep adding flour and kneading until dough is evenly-colored (no visible flour) but not very sticky. Cover again, and let sit for at least 2 hours. In the meantime, do your laundry or something!
[Note: you can give the dough as many risings as you like. As long as you remember to punch it down every couple of hours, you can drag this part out over a full day’s worth of errands.]
4) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
5) Divide dough into 4 loaves. Separate each loaf into 3 equal lumps, and roll them between your hands into long “snakes.” Braid the snakes together as you would braid hair (if you’ve never braided hair before, ask a girl to show you how). Transfer to a pair of cookie sheets, 2 loaves per sheet.
6) Beat the last egg, and spread it over the four loaves as a glaze.
7) Bake the loaves for about 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.
I had a friend once who followed my recipe and missed the fact that it yields four loves rather than one. The results were…huge. Don’t make that mistake. I always make four loaves, and freeze two for the following week. It slices pretty nicely, and as everyone knows, leftover challah makes the best French toast.
N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.