BBA #6: Challah

February 11th, 2011 by Chris

Here’s my rule: if you can’t holla ’bout challah, there’s somethin’ wrong with you. Challah, when it is made well, great bread. I’ve always been a huge fan of it, but sadly I haven’t had it in a very long time (even if I could find it here in Missouri — and to be honest I’ve never seen it — I wouldn’t waste my money buying it). It’s not just Missouri, though – it’s just hard to find it outside of certain places. I don’t remember seeing challah much when I lived in Northeast Connecticut either. Already, I suspect, I was too far out of NYC (second largest Jewish population on the planet) to find it readily available.  Basically, two hours from NYC and already I might as well have been on the other side of the challah-eating universe. So it’s not surprising that you don’t find it out here, where the Jewish population density is probably 1 person per 200 miles.

So I was naturally excited to bake this. However, I was a bit apprehensive about making it. After all, how was I supposed to reproduce such a great bread off the cuff? Gladly, I’m actually shocked to report, this recipe turned out awesome. I mean, I realize I’m not Jewish and all, so in the end – really – what do I know? Still, I can say that I grew up in a neighborhood with amazing Jewish bakeries, so I can honestly say that I know what it is supposed to taste like. And this loaf of challah comes damn close to what I remember it tasting like.  Seriously, I had some flashbacks to the days of my youth ripping into these loaves like a ravenous dog. In fact I had to stop myself from continually cutting into the loaf to eat more and more of it.

Basically, I’m hollerin’.

(As BBA folks such as Jim, Coz, Adam, Sara, Paul, and Nancy file in with their finished products, you’ll find the links here!)

Unfortunately, I don’t think my wife holla’d much. As most of you know, she grew up in southern Arkansas, where the Jewish density is probably even more sparse: 1 Jewish person per 600 miles. So I don’t think my wife had ever eaten challah before I made it. When I realized this, I felt a bit bad for her. I mean, this stuff is great! It also made me remember that when I was a kid, I think I just assumed that everyone had authentic Italian, Jewish, and _fill in the blank_ eateries around them. It was just normal for me to have all this crazy food diversity all over. I’m sure there are great things about growing up in Arkansas, but food diversity ain’t one of them (unless you could lots of different ways to make Southern dishes), unfortunately. Since challah really is a different type of bread, with a very idiosyncratic taste, I think it might take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never had it. The kids seemed to like it, though. The five year old even said that since I had “taken my head out of the cookbook” the day before, she would suspend her “Daddy’s food” boycott and eat a slice.


Challah isn’t terribly tough to make, but at the same time, I found the shaping aspect of it a bit challenging. So for the first time I’m going to raise up the difficulty on this bread up to intermediate, though I’d say that it is a ‘weak’ intermediate, or ‘intermediate minus’. Now, mind you, insofar as taste is concerned, there’s nothing to fear. It’s an easy recipe to make so it will taste just fine. However, in my opinion, aesthetics do count in a good loaf of bread. In fact, I think that my challah bread looked pretty cool at the end, but to be honest, I know it doesn’t look the way it is supposed to (look at the way the center of the braids “busted out”). So I’m pretty sure that a Jewish person raised on proper challah would likely say that my loaf looked all jacked up and so wasn’t worth eating. That’d be fair enough – if I’d seen my particular loaf in the Jewish bakery, I probably would not have bought it myself.

But heck, this is as it should be – it takes time and practice to get a recipe and its instructions correct. As I comment below, though, you’ll find me once again taking Reinhart to the carpet a bit on his instructions regarding shaping. I think he makes a small mistake in his wording, but it’s significant enough problem I think. I’ll explain when I get down to that section.

Comments on the Process

Challah has the two steps -  (a) dough/shape, and (b) bake. As I noted, it’s the shaping process that causes some issues here. Everything else is not a problem.

Step One – Dough and Shape

As you may have noticed – and to be honest, I was a bit surprised – there’s no sponge, biga or poolish for a challah bread. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever made a bread that didn’t have one, so the absence of one for this bread made me think over what the function of the sponge/biga is. I suppose it is for heartier flavor, since the longer you leave the sponge/biga sitting around, the more you wind up with a sour-dough robust taste in your bread. Knowing challah bread, and it’s subtlety, I can see why you don’t want that. Challah is a very mild bread and has no real ‘attack’ flavor at all. It’s subtle, and needs to remain that way (it’s part of its charm, I think).  Since you’re aiming for a smooth tasting bread, no sponge/biga is needed.

Although the mixing process for me is usually pretty easy and straightforward, this time I found that Reinhart’s recipe (for me anyway) was off way more than usual. He said that you should be able to get to a soft but not sticky dough in 18 oz of flour, but I needed about 22 oz (I’m going to start calling undershooting the amount of required flour “getting Reinharted” or “pulling a Reinhart”). I didn’t think I’d have to go that far over, but I did, and it was absolutely necessary to do so. Not sure why. In fact, even at 22 oz, it was still a bit sticky, and small amounts of dough still stuck to the side of the bowl (as you can see in the shot below). Typically the dough sticking to the bowl comes off during the final dough-hook stage and the bowl is clean.

After the first rise in the bowl (which is formed into a boule) Reinhart has you degass the dough it and boule shape it again, to let it rise yet again. Here you see it at the end of that process:

Once that’s done, you divide the dough into three pieces (for the three strands) and form little mini-boules, letting them then sit for a little bit to allow the gluten inside to relax. In retrospect, I’m not sure about this stage, and I think I would make alterations the next time. I had such issues getting the ropes to form that this final bouling stage makes little sense. Why not just form the ropes right after f the second rise? This extra shaping, seems to me, made the roping stage harder.

Which brings us to the problem stage. I had a lot of problems here in the roping/braiding. It’s not that I don’t know how to rope dough – I’ve done it making gnocchi many times before. So I’m aware of how to do it with my hands. But I’ve never tried it with a bread dough. Let me tell you – it ain’t that easy to do. It doesn’t want to elongate, as the gluten strands pull against the shaping. If you read the book, Reinhart says to just “rope” the dough.

Rope it my butt!

There should, in my opinion, be some extra explanation on how this will need to be done. What I found myself doing was a lot of stretching and pulling of the dough as opposed to literal roping in the way you’d rope dough for gnocchi. Moreover, my ropes didn’t look as neat as his (look below – you can literally see the results of my stretching). So it would be nice to know a bit more about how this part is done correctly.

The actually braiding process itself wasn’t so bad – easy, actually, but I think my problem here was that I was unaware of how tight to pull the braid. In my final product, the middle top of the loaf really sort of exploded up, pushing the egg-washed and seed covered part of the bread out to the sides. Real challah loaves don’t do that. So is it an issue of pulling it tighter? I’m not sure, and Reinhart doesn’t really say. Here’s a shot of mine, half-braided…

…and here’s another shot, fully braided.

Basically, this part of the recipe needs some extra splainin’. If Reinhart could just get clearer on the roping/shaping process, so that the loaves come out looking right, I think this recipe would be just fine. As it is, I’ll just have to experiment to get it right.

Step Two – Baking

No problems here. The recipe calls for a baking time of anywhere between 40 to 65 minutes, which is pretty wide. I went for 52 minutes, and judged by color. it was brown enough, and I had a cery good memory of what a finished loaf should look like.

Comments on the Final Product

I’m still hollerin’ as I write this post!

This loaf came out great. It really did touch on some old memories of growing up and ripping into loaves of challah made by some amazing local bakers. I was suprised that it came out so well, to be honest. I thought it would be harder to get right. I was also happy to make a loaf finally that didn’t have mounds of fat in it — which means that challah gets a “is virtuous” (read: not requiring a total rejection of temperance) label. Okay, this loaf has four eggs in it, but that’s really the main tweaking of the bread dough, other than the extra added sugar. Thankfully there’s no butter in it.

As I’ve said above, the great thing about challah, to me, is its subtleness and also its crust. The eggs inside are not overwhelming at all. You taste the egg, but it’s just present. The crumb and crust on challah are its signature features – and here they were awesome. The crumb had nice holes, and was very, very light, as it should be. The best part, however — just as I remembered it from my youth — was the crust. Very flaky and the egg wash (in addition to the sesame) does a great job of adding not just texture but taste as well.

Here are some shots of the product:

Here’s the whole loaf from the front with a slice cut off:

I was so impressed by the crumb on this bread that I kept taking pictures of it. This picture doesn’t do great justice to it, but you can see the holes. Man, this crust was light, too!

Here’s another close up of the same slice -

Challah is such a beautiful bread in so many ways – even when you screw up the general look of it – that you can’t help but to admire the egg washed gluten strands.

Here’s a side shot

And here’s a shot of a sandwich I made with the bread. Yes, those are potato chips inside the sandwich. I also put fries on my burgers. Hey, it’s my vice.


Will I make challah again? Are you kidding? I’m still hollerin’!

Next Week’s Challenge: Ciabatta

Oops – update. I had originally said that next week was Cinnamon Buns. That’s in two weeks. Next week is ciabatta, the no-knead Italian Bread. Quite different from the non-virtuous Cinnamon Buns thhat I’m not all that fired up to make, I am fired up about the ciabatta. Many moons ago I tried it numerous times and failed miserably each time. Hopefully I’ve learned enough since then to take on this challenge and defeat it.

See you next week!

33 Responses to “BBA #6: Challah”

  1. Geraint Says:

    Yep, that crumb looks gorgeous.

    When I saw that our next bread was another enriched one, I must say I groaned, but after your enthusiasm for Challah (which I’ve never tasted) I’m looking forward to it. It’ll probably be the end of next week before I get the chance though.

    As regards the ‘busting out’, this could be a shaping or proofing issue (or combination).

    If not fully proofed, loaves will burst more as the yeast has more oomph still left in it before being killed by the heat of the oven. This effect is more pronounced on breads that aren’t slashed, like this one, when the bursting will occur at the weakest points. The weaker points will be determined by the shaping process to some extent.

    When making ropes with yeasted dough it’s important not to tear/break the gluten structure which is easy to do if pulling/stretching, so you need to let it rest & relax when you feel it wanting to spring back. From the mini boule stage – & after the 10 min ‘bench rest’ – roll the first boule until you feel it resisting, then switch to the 2nd, then the 3rd, & back to the 1st; in that way, you might find them easier to roll out without needing any extra time to do so.

  2. Richard Schur Says:

    That is not ham and cheese in the last picture, is it?

  3. Chris Says:

    Rich –

    It is. I suppose that given that the bread is parve, the whole sandwich is a kind of instantiation of P & ~P. I suppose that if I was Jewish this would have been a serious problem. :)

    Geraint –

    I think the bread was fully proofed, so I’m guessing it was the shaping and roping that went wrong. I’m guessing that it was not pulled tight enough. At the ends of the loaf, there was no explosion, and I think that’s simply because it was tighter at the ends.

    I agree on the pulling of the dough for making the ropes – but this is why I think the instructions in the book are not great. Simply saying “roll the dough” isn’t sufficient to explain the process, or the problems that could arise (like tearing the gluten). Also, like I mentioned above, I’m not sure the third ‘bouling’ is necessary. Why not just rope at that point and let it rest from there?

  4. DJ Says:

    The bread looks great Chris!!

  5. Frieda Says:

    I’m a visual person, so I must say your crumb looks uh~mazing! I’m also a visual learner, so I agree, simply saying, “roll the dough” doesn’t give me enough info. I watched a LOT of YouTube videos on shaping batards, boules, etc. and I think watching someone else shape a challah braid is in order. Just sayin’.

  6. jim Says:

    I agree with you Chris and Geraint,the shaping instuctions were limited.Having also grown up in Ny where Italian,Chinese,Jewish Deli’s were abundant,moving to NC,well was a food shock!!
    Having made Challah,as well as other braided loaves,again exprience is always key,letting the dough rest when it does NOT want to shape is necessary.
    Unfortunately this was not illustrated.So again as you stated the novice would be perplexed.
    I chose to make the two tier celebraton loaf to challenge myself as i had not done this before.Again the instuctions were Not helpfull.Pressing the top braid down onto the lower did not assure a solid contact,as the photo shows.
    I checked online found a Jewish cooking site,it was the photo of a double tiered loaf ( as Francine pointed out visual is incredibly helpfull).The top braid ends are TUCKED into the bottom braid .I was not going to accept the failed first try .I took one more precaution and moistened the bottom of of the top braid.
    This worked ,the loaf was stunning! Though the first loaf was misshapened it was still delicious,made french toast with it this morning.

  7. jim Says:

    Problem with the page,posting photo not possible.I’ll pst them on fb.

  8. Chris Says:

    @Jim -

    I just checked out your FB pics – nice double decker (if you can get a pic up here, give it a shot, though I know you always have problems getting shots uploaded here for some reason)! I’m just not sure why Reinhart doesn’t give slightly better instructions at times. Sometimes I think the assumption is “you’ve done this before” when I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption to make. I’m not saying to put up total newbie instructions, but he should write with the novice in mind.

    @Freida –

    I often go to YouTubes too. In this case, though, I was already knee deep in the shaping – as I thought a typically gnocci shaping would work – so I was already in the midst of it when the problems emerged. I should have just done the YouTube searching first beforehand to make sure I was on the right track.

    @DJ –

    Thanks! Tastes great too, as you’ll soon see!

  9. Chris Says:

    @Jim –

    I just put in a new image plugin for comment-images. See if that does the trick.

  10. NancyB Says:

    My pictures are up, blog will follow:
    That’s my full BBA Challenge set, as I can’t seem to make Flickr’s search just find this week’s shots. (Chris, I think you’ve got a bad tinyurl for my Flickr set on your Challenge 2011 page–it goes to a generic Drury page.)

    For those who haven’t tackled the challah yet and would like a little more complexity than the 3-strand braid, I use this 6-strand version, which gives me a rounder loaf than other 6-strands and than the 3-strand. It’s easy once you get the pattern–try it once with string before attempting dough:
    The double-tiered idea never comes out well for me, as the smaller braid cooks too quickly and gets hard.

  11. Chris Says:


    I just checked the Challenge 2011 page – it took me to your flickr page right. Are you sure that’s the bad url?

    Also, doesn’t Reinhart have a 6-strand set of instructions in the BBA book? I seem to remember it, but I could be misremembering.

  12. jim Says:

    @Nancy: absolutely beautifull loaf!!

  13. saltandserenity Says:

    Oh Chris, what a beautiful challah! That is very impressive for your first try. Although I must say, you may be put in the bad books for making a ham and cheese sandwich on challah!! If your wife is from the south, she may prefer a sweeter challah. I make mine with a sugar/flour/butter (or margarine for pareve) topping. Check it out.

  14. NancyB Says:

    @Chris: The problem one is , which takes me to a Drury Webmail page. It’s on . Or maybe it’s just me…but I’ve tried it in two different browsers.

    I don’t think Reinhart gives a 6-strand braid other than the double tiered one–he has 3, 4, and 5. However, it’s my understanding that 6 is an important number, or really 12, for the 12 tribes of Israel. You get to 12 by having 2 challahs at the meal.

  15. Coz Says:

    Everyone’s Challah is looking wonderful. I spent my Saturday night up late baking! I have my post up.

  16. jim Says:

    Photos of my first and second attempt for a two tiered challah.I posted the procedure to secure the top braid to the bottom in a previous thread.I also lowered the oven rack one level to even the temperature environment for the loaf.A tent of foil could be used to slow the browning of the top braid.I did not do that,and the loaf cooked correctly.

  17. jim Says:

    Although this one is misshapened,it was still light and airy and delicious

  18. jim Says:

    the second loaf,i did not have sesame seeds(did not want to pay the rediculous price for an ounce bottle at the market).I’ll wait till I visit the health food market.Any way I was happy with this one.

  19. Chris Says:

    @Nancy -

    I’m not sure what the problem with that link is. Everytime I clicked it, it took me to your Flickr. In any event, I’ve replaced it with the straight Flickr link, so that should fix it (whatever it was!).

    @Jim –

    I love that bottom loaf. Very pretty. I love how it tapers down on both ends, giving it a very nice aesthetic look!

    By the way, I agree that the price of sesame seeds is ridiculous. But it doesn’t compare to the insane price of pine nuts!

  20. Chris Says:

    Jim –

    Question: you succeeded in getting the ropes to stay tight without exploding out from the middle (as mine did). Did you pull the braids tight when you made the loaf? I’m trying to diagnose my “middle explosion” issue.

  21. jim Says:

    @Chris:Thank you!. when I began rolling the ropes,I did it in sequence of one ,not forcing it,stopping do the next so on.It took 4 rollings of each rope to get them to the length of 17″ without tearing the dough or having to pull them.It’s a matter of allowing the dough to relax in order to shape it.When I braided the ropes i did it loosely allowing room to exspand.I’m not saying there was any visible space just not tightly braided.
    As Geraint had said tearing the dough broke the dough skin ,In affect as scoring a loaf allows exspansion,most likely this,or having been too tightly braided caused the tearing as it rose in the oven.that has happened to other braided loaves I have made.
    Guess you’ll have to make another to find out!

  22. Joanne Says:

    I will try to find time to make this bread before to long, but right now my schedule is just not allowing enough time to. I just finished the ciabatta, and I need to make some whole wheat bread tomorrow for my husband. I am so impressed with all of your braiding, and can hardly wait to try it myself!

  23. DJ Says:

    Hey Everyone! So I had the chance to get some really good flour for pretty cheap so I got a lot of it. If anyone wants to buy some to check out a new flour during the challenge let me know. Here’s a link so you can check it out: just paste it in your search bar. If you may be interested just e-mail at :) Hopefully I’ll have my challah finished tomorrow and posted on Friday.

  24. Joanne Says:

    I am hoping to be able to make a challah soon, but first I needed to make some whole wheat for my husband. I always make it with a poolish to enhance the flavor, so I started it yesterday when I was watching my other dough’s rise. I try to combine things, like making my sourdough and the ciabatta on the same day.

  25. sara Says:

    I love this thread! There must be something in the karmic circle going on because separate from any awareness of the challenge I took on challah about 6 weeks ago and have been working at it right along with the rest of you, on accident!

    How happy all these loaves look! Nice work everyone.

    I began using a silver palate recipe. I’ve (of course) modified it a bit, and am getting really wonderful results. I do use a biga myself. The loaves stay fresher so much longer. By using powdered milk I can make the biga with a cup of flour and a cup of water and then just build on that. I do my dough making in a Zo, but the shaping and rising and baking all goes on in the typical manner.

    One suggestion I have on the loaf shaping; Make sure those rolls of dough are slimmer in the middle than at the ends. That way when you taper off the loaf and pinch the rolls under to form the braid you don’t get such a thick mass in the middle in comparison to the ends, and the loaf isn’t quite so “jacked up” when it comes out of the oven.

    My biggest annoyance is the eggwash tends to make the loaf stick a bit no matter what I do. I am thinking of getting one of those silpat mats and trying that to see if it helps. Anyone have any experience baking on one of these mats?

    And can I just say that grilled cheese and french toast reaches stratospheric heights when executed with challah? To die for!`

  26. Paul M Says:

    Sorry for being late with this but here are my siamese twin Challah. I made the two ‘small’ loaves but underestimated the oven spring. I was amazed with how light and airy the crumb turned out. Admittedly I have only had Challah a couple of times but it was much denser. I’m looking forward to making French toast in the morning with it.
    Siamese Challah

  27. Paul M Says:

    Crumb Shot

  28. Joanne Says:

    They still look beautiful! I love the crumb too.

  29. Chris Says:

    Everyone –

    A quick shout out to Sara, who has joined the challenge as of this week. Her post is here:

    Also, to a few others, I’ve added your links to the post at the top!

  30. DJ Says:

    Just got my challah posted. It did not come out as well as I could of hoped for. Check out my problems and let me know if you have any ideas. Everyone’s challah look so great! I’m jealous :)

  31. Joanne Says:

    Just finished cutting my challah, and posted it at . It’s not nearly as nice as some I have seen here. It is however really awesome tasting and has great texture….


  32. Joanne Says:

    Here’s a picture of the crumb, not real impressive until you actually eat it. Pretty awesome…

  33. Judy Says:

    My challah came out well. I,too, had a problem with rolling the ropes. I had to let them rest several times before I could get them the desired length. I did not have any trouble braiding the loaf with 3 strands. After french braiding 20-40 little girl’s hair every June for dance recital I have had plenty of practice. We liked this bread and it looked great!

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