The Great Challah Debate

Happy new year, everyone!  2011 was a big year.  It was a history changing year around the world.  It was the year I finally found some direction.  And of course, it was the year I started this blog.  I can’t tell you how much the experience has exceeded all my expectations, and I just want to thank everyone who has stopped by, left me comment, or told me what you thought about The Inventive Vegetarian.  It’s been so encouraging and so rewarding, and I just can’t wait to see what this new year brings.

Anyway, this is actually a post that I had written several months ago, but never got around to putting up.  I decided to start the new year off with this one because challah is something that is very near and dear to my heart.  It’s one of the very few things I actually willingly, even eagerly, bake on a regular basis.  Nothing makes a shabbat meal with friends or family like a warm loaf of homemade challah. What better way to start off a happy and healthy new year?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that there is a big divide in the world of challah (braided bread traditionally eaten at every Jewish meal).  It all boils down to egg challah vs. water challah.  The big difference, as I’m sure you can guess from the name, is the presence of egg in the dough.  Egg challah also tends to be sweeter.  I’ve even had loafs that resemble cake.  I have to say, I’m not a fan.

I definitely grew up in a water challah family.  Even better, in a water challah family that sometimes makes its own.  We’ve been following the same basic recipe for as long as I can remember, but with slight changes.  Namely, the kind of flour we use.  We’ve evolved from white flour to whole wheat flour to this fantastic nine grain flour mix that we love.

This stuff is SO good!

The good news about being a water challah kind of gal is that I don’t have to give up my challah as I become more and more vegan.  Actually, the only thing I’ve had to change for this recipe is the egg wash, which is easily replaced with a water-agave mixture (I’ve also used soy milk, which works as well).

So here’s the family (not so) secret recipe.  I hope you like it as much as I do!


Makes 2 large loafs (or one loaf and 4-6 rolls)

11/2 cups warm water
1/2 cup sugar (though for Rosh Hashana my mom substitutes half of that with honey)
2 pkgs. dry yeast
5 cups flour, you can choose what kind (white, whole wheat, etc – I use 2 -3 cups 9 grain mix)*
1/2 cup oil
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons agave
Toppings of your choice (optional, though I recommend poppy or sesame seeds)

*The kind of flour you use will affect the consistency of the bread.  For example, I when I make this bread with only unbleached, all purpose flour, the bread comes out pretty fluffy.  Using the 9 grain mix, it comes out denser.  Either way it’s delicious.

1. Proof the yeast.  Pour 1/2 cup warm water into a measuring cup, add 1 tsp sugar and stir, add yeast to water and stir again.  Allow to rest until yeast foams and rises to the top, about 10 mins.  I’ve found that the more foam, the fluffier the bread.

2. Mix salt, sugar, and 3 cups of flour in a large bowl.  Add the proofed yeast, oil and remaining water.  Mix until it is a gooey mess, then add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time.  When dough gets firmer, you can start kneading in the bowl, adding flour as needed until dough is smooth (and not sticky).   Be careful not to add too much though.  Knead for about 5 minutes, either slapping the dough into the mixing bowl or kneading it on a cutting board or clean counter top.

3. Form dough into a bowl place back in the bowl you mixed it in.  Pour a little oil in your palm and spread it on the dough, to prevent it from forming a crust, and cover it loosely with a clean cloth

4. Let it rise till double in bulk.  I generally like to make the dough one night, put it in the refrigerator, then bake it the next afternoon, giving it plenty of time to rise.  If you want a quicker rise, put it in a warm enclosed space, like in an oven that was just heated to the lowest possible temp then turned off.  If you’ve given your dough tons of time and it hasn’t doubled, but it’s still risen, that’s ok.  The bread just might be denser (see note on flour above).

5. When you’re ready to braid your challah, punch down the dough (great activity for the little baker helpers), remove it from the bowl and let it rest for 5 minutes on a clean and flour-sprinkled surface.

6. Divide the dough into how many loafs you want.  Now divide each of those parts into 3 or 4 equal sections, depending on the kind of braid you want (the one pictured here is a 4-stranded braid).  Using your hands, roll out each piece of dough into a 10 -12 inch log, thicker in the middle and tapering at the ends.

7. Braid your challah!  I like to start in the middle of the strands, work my way down, then go back for the top, pinching and tucking in both ends when I’m finished.  I don’t know why I prefer this way, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother’s own habit has something to do with it.

If you want to make rolls, half the dough will make 4 good sized rolls.  For each roll (not pictured here, sorry, but we only made half a recipe), I like to roll out a good sized strand of dough, then tie it in a knot.  Then I tuck in the bottom tail so that you have a nice round roll with one tail sticking out the top.

8. Brush each loaf with the water-agave mixture.  Sprinkle your favorite toppings onto the challah (pictured here – a mixture of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and sea salt.  Or, you can leave the toppings off, but still use the glaze.  In fact, if you’re doing that, I’d add a second layer of glaze 10 minutes into baking.

9. Bake the challah at 350F for 30 – 40 minutes, depending on the size (rolls will take less time), until they’re golden brown.  To test if your challah is done, carefully pick it up (remember – it’s hot!) and knock on the bottom of it.  If it sounds hollow, take those braided breads out of the oven!

Serve either warm or room temperature.  Leftovers (if you have any, which I doubt you will) make really good toast and French toast.


8 Responses to The Great Challah Debate

  1. shevy says:

    just made this recipe for shabbat and it came out AMAZING!!! i tripled the recipe 🙂

    p.s. you forgot to put the salt amount in the ingredient list

  2. Michelle says:

    will definitely be trying this!!

  3. Kiri W. says:

    It looks beautiful! Challah (well, a non-religious version) is offered at almost any German bakery as Zopf (braid), and my grandma always had one.

  4. Looks delicious. I’m a big egg challah fan but may need to try a water version! I’ve been making a whole-wheat version and will now add some seeds too. Thanks for the recipe!

  5. This bread looks amazing, gorgeous photos! Happy New Year! 🙂

  6. What a great looking bread! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Tiffany says:

    What a beautiful challah! And I love that it’s full of multi-grains!

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