This recipe is very special to me; it was my “signature” bread at the very beginning of my culinary career. Traditionally, in the Jewish religion, braided challah is eaten with dinner every Friday to celebrate the Sabbath. Symbolically, the woven, knobby shape of the braid is meant to reflect the forever winding and sometimes bumpy road of life. I thought you’d enjoy knowing the easy step-by-step professional formula for making a six-strand braid at home.
Following are the directions to make two voluptuous six-strand braided loaves, or three 8 x 4-inch loaves with or without raisins. This challah dough is not parve. If Kosher and using for a meal that contains meat, make the changes suggested in the recipe.
And, if making yeast bread is new for you, you can go to this page on “Food Matters A to Z,” to learn about how things work. You can also check out the previews of my Pizza video and/or my Country White Bread video to see if you’d like to watch them in their entirety.
For the challah dough
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted, for the dough, plus 3 tablespoons melted butter, for brushing
- 1 cup milk
- 1/3 cup sugar, for the dough, plus a pinch of sugar, for the yeast
- 1 tablespoon mild-flavored honey
- 2 cups mixed light and dark moist raisins (optional)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
- 4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- Up to 6 cups high-protein bread flour, including flour for dusting
- Medium-ground cornmeal, as needed, for sprinkling
- Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds and/or kosher or sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)
- Egg Glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water
If wanting to prepare a Kosher (parve) challah, one that can be eaten with both meat and dairy, substitute water (or try coconut milk) for the milk and use an equal amount of non-dairy (stick) margarine for the butter or use corn oil, reducing it to 1/3 cup).
To set up to make the dough
Use some of the melted butter to grease the interior of an 8-quart mixing bowl. Set that bowl aside. Spread two overlapping sheets of plastic wrap near the greased bowl and brush some of the butter onto the wrap.
To make the dough and rise it twice
Warm the milk in a 1-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium low heat. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and add 8 tablespoons of melted butter. Stir in 1/3 cup sugar along with the honey, salt and the raisins, if using. Let the milk cool to lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water with a pinch of sugar and allow it to become bubbly, about 3 minutes. Add the dissolved yeast to the warm milk mixture, along with the eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon, to break up the eggs, then stir in enough flour, cup by cup, to create a somewhat stiff, shaggy mass, that’s no longer easily stirred.
Using a sturdy rubber spatula, scrape the mass on to a floured surface and knead it until you’ve created a dough that’s smooth and elastic, adding only as much additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Place the dough into the greased bowl and brush the top with more melted butter. Cover the bowl with greased plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot, until doubled, 2 to 2 1/2 hours (dough with raisins will require the longer rise). Uncover the dough and punch it down, with several swift swats with the back of your hand. Turn the dough over in the bowl and knead, gently, to redistribute the yeast. Recover the bowl and let the dough rise again, until very light and billowy, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
To shape braided loaves
Preheat the oven(s) to 375°F. Line 2 large shallow baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle the paper with cornmeal. Gather your choice of seeds, if using, and place them next to the bowl of glaze. Turn the fully risen dough out onto your lightly floured work surface and divide the dough in half using your pastry scraper. Cover one half, while working with the other. (If not working with a double oven, refrigerate half of the dough, in its original bowl, covered.)
Divide one half of dough into 6 equal pieces and roll each piece into a strand, about 10 inches long, with tapered ends and slightly chubby centers. (Use extra flour, only as necessary, to keep dough from sticking.) Position the strands vertically in front of you and pinch the ends farthest from you at the top, together, attaching them. Number the strands from 1 to 6, starting at the strand to the far left. (See braiding technique below.)
Please print the following procedure and read it carefully before beginning. Keep these instructions within easy view, as you shape your braided loaves.
Spread the strands, so they all have some space between them, staying connected on top. Number the position of each strand from 1 to 6, starting at the far left. (No matter how the strands are arranged the numbers stay the same.)
1) Take strand #6 and bring it over to become #1.
2) Strand #2 goes over #6 and becomes #6.
3) Strand #1 goes across and over strand #3, and becomes #3.
4) Strand #5 goes over #1 and becomes #1.
5) Strand #6 crosses over #4 and becomes #4.
6) Repeat steps 2 through 6 (not # 1) until you reach the bottom of the strands.
When you reach the bottom of the braid, pinch the ends together to secure them. Tuck the ends on both sides, underneath the braid, plumping it nicely. Place the braid on one of the baking sheets and cover it with a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes. (If working with a double oven, repeat this same procedure with the remaining half of dough. If not, wait until the first loaf enters the oven to remove the second half from the refrigerator and shape that braid.)
After a 20-minute rise, uncover the braid and brush the dough, all over, with the egg glaze. Leave the loaf uncovered, for the remaining 5 minutes. Just before baking, give the dough another coat of glaze and, if desired, sprinkle the top, decoratively, with one or more type of the seeds. Sprinkle the top lightly with salt, if desired, and bake the braid(s) at 375°F, until golden and the loaves feel light and sound hollow when lifted and tapped on the bottom, 35 to 40 minutes. As the dough bakes, it will expand, exposing new, unglazed dough. To prevent uneven browning, check the braids 20 minutes after they enter the oven and, working quickly, brush any whiter parts of dough with some reserved glaze. Quickly sprinkle those sections with some seeds, if using, and continue to bake, until done. (If braids ever seem to be over-browning, before being cooked through, cover them loosely with aluminum foil (shiny side up), uncovering for the last 2 minutes of baking.)
SANDWICH LOAF VARIATION: Make the dough, as directed and, after the second rise, you’re ready to shape your loaves.
To shape, rise and bake the loaves
Brush three 9 x 5-inch loaf pans with melted butter and set them aside. Turn the risen dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead it gently and briefly. Use your pastry scraper to divide the dough into three equal portions and cover them while working with one at a time. Roll one piece into an 8 x 10-inch rectangle, with one short end close to you. Starting at the top short end, that’s furthest from you, roll the dough down snugly towards you. After each revolution, use the thumb on your working hand to press down and connect the interior wall of the roll to the bottom of the dough. When you reach the bottom, pinch the last inch of dough onto the roll, so it adheres. Working with one end at a time, press each coiled spiral of dough, in toward the center of the log. Pinch the top and bottom outer rims of dough together, elongating this part slightly, and attach it to the bottom seam, rounding off and sealing each end.
Lay the loaf, seam side down in a prepared loaf pan and use your hands to gently plump and correct the shape. Cover the loaf with a clean kitchen towel and repeat this same procedure with the remaining dough. Let the loaves rise for 45 minutes, in a draft-free spot.
To bake loaves
Preheat the oven to 400°F if using metal pans, and 375°F if using glass. Just before placing the loaves into the hot oven, brush the tops with melted butter. Bake the loaves in the middle of the oven, with 1 1/2-inches in between them, for 30 to 35 minutes, covering loosely with aluminum foil (dull side up) for the last 10 minutes, if becoming overly brown. Remove the loaves from the oven and turn them out of their pans, onto wire racks. Give the bottom of each loaf a good tap on its bottom, which should sound hollow. If not, put them back into the oven (on a shallow baking sheet) for a few more minutes. When done, remove the loaves from the oven and, for the softest crusts, brush the tops with more melted butter. Let the loaves cool completely, on wire racks, before slicing.
A word about oven space: If all three loaves won’t fit in your oven, bake two risen loaves at once, while the third rises in the refrigerator, covered. When the first two loaves enter the oven, remove the third from the refrigerator, letting it rise until the desired volume is achieved. Bake as directed.
Timing is Everything
The dough can be assembled through the first full rise and, after deflating it, placed back in the bowl and in the refrigerator for up to two days (keep well covered). When making loaves, be sure to allow the time required, to bring the dough to room temperature (this can take up to 4 hours).