best challah (egg bread) – smitten kitchen

I only know one Yiddish phrase (well, two, if you can count farshikkert, which is a pretty awesome way to say someone is three sheets to the wind), but conveniently, it is my favorite. A shonda for the goyim means, roughly, that someone of the Jewish faith is not only doing something shameful (shonda), but doing it in front of non-Jews, which of course is an entirely worse offense. Like, it would be bad enough to, say, eat ham and cheese on matzo on Passover (or, I suspect, ever and boy, do I have a great story about that but first let me see if I can get my mother to pay me not to share it) but it would be doubly more awful to do it in front of a person outside your faith. You would, in fact, bring shame upon your entire people, mostly because when given the choice between the most or least dramatic interpretation of an event, I think can safely say that my people will generally opt for the former.

NEW: Watch me make challah on YouTube!

Anyway, I love the phrase so much, I use it all of the time, including times when it’s probably totally inappropriate. For example, the other day someone suggested that I might consider adding a Jewish Recipe index to’s new Topic Indexes. I began to look for Jewish or holiday-themed recipes in my archives and came to a terrible realization: The offerings were quite paltry. Not only is there no brisket in there, where are the kreplach (dumplings), the kugels and my mother’s amazing apple cake? How can I not have a single recipe for challah?

A shonda, indeed.

round challah

Well, I aim to get us swiftly up to speed. Challah, or egg bread, is a lot like brioche in that it is a slightly sweet bread enriched with both eggs and fat, except challah uses oil instead of butter, and less of it, while using more eggs. It is mildly decadent and seriously delicious and it is a known fact across all lands (or at least diners in the tri-state area) that when slightly staled, makes the most amazing French toast there could be. Seriously. I actually get disappointed when I order French toast and receive a stack without the telltale crust of poppy seeds on it.

To bake it at home is to have your apartment swallowed whole by the an aroma so sweet, it alone could make a religious person out of you. I don’t know if it is the eggs or oils or extra sugar in there, but it puts all bread-baking aromas before it to shame, the kind of glorious scent you will want to walk around in a haze of in the days that follow. As you should. As we all should.


Bread-phobic? Check out my tips for beaming and bewitching breads before you start.

One year ago: Couscous and Feta Stuffed Peppers (Still our favorite!)
Two years ago: Fougasse

Best Challah (Egg Bread)
Adapted from Joan Nathan

The secrets to good challah are simple: Use two coats of egg wash to get that laquer-like crust and don’t overbake it. Joan Nathan, who this recipe is adapted from, adds that three risings always makes for the tastiest loaves, even better if one of them is slowed down in the fridge.

Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising
Yield: 2 loaves

3 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (about 1 1/2 packages, 3/8 ounces or 11 grams)
1 tablespoon (13 grams) granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup (118 ml) olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
4 large eggs
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon (14 grams) table salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups (1000 to 1063 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins (about 70 grams) per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained

To finish
1 large egg
Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon (13 grams) sugar in water; set aside for 5 minutes until a bit foamy.

2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful if using a standard size KitchenAid–it’s a bit much for it, though it can be done.)

3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.

4. At this point, you can knead the raisins into the challah, if you’re using them, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular*, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.

5. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.

6. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.

7. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.

Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, for more deeply-developed flavor. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.

Round or straight braid? Raisins or skip them? Straight loaves of braided challah are eaten throughout the year–typically on the Sabbath–round challahs, often studded with raisins, are served for the New Year and the other High Holidays that follow. I made one of each, so you could see examples.

* These days, we make round woven challahs with this much easier technique. Do check it out!

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