Fact: challah is one of the greatest breads in the world. Okay, as an American Jew, I may be slightly biased. But even if you didn’t grow up eating challah on Friday nights and holidays, it’s easy to fall in love with this showoff of a loaf. Made from a wet dough enriched with oil, eggs, and honey, it’s golden and shiny on the outside, fluffy and slightly sweet on the inside. It’s made for pulling apart, the seams of the braid acting as a guide. And if it lasts long enough to go stale, it makes the world’s greatest French toast.
Where I live, you can buy decent challah from bakeries and some grocery stores. But homemade challah blows them all away, and this recipe is my current favorite. Rather than kneading by hand and letting the dough rise at room temperature, this version slows things waaaaay dooooown. There’s no kneading at all. Instead, you let the dough sit quietly at room temperature, folding it over on itself every so often. The recipe recommends five folds, spread out over about 2 1/2 hours; I do mine about every 30 minutes, working or puttering or watching TV in between. But this is not the kind of recipe that demands precision and hovering. You could do one fold after 15 minutes, then another after 45. Basically, just keep folding until the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticking to your fingers.
When you’ve folded the dough five times, transfer it to the fridge and let it rise overnight. The next day, braid the chilled dough–I’ve never mastered the spectacular six-strand, so I just do a simple three-strand plait–and let it rest again for 2-3 hours at room temperature. The result of this slow, lazy process is a bread with rich yeasty flavor and a gorgeously pillowy texture. When you pull it apart, the edges fray into delicate filaments. It’s the best challah I’ve ever made, and light years away from what you’ll find in a store.
Challah gets its gorgeous brown lacquer from an egg wash–preferably one with some yolk in it. You could beat a whole egg with a pinch of salt, but I find that makes way more egg wash than I need. Instead, I use my friend Andrea’s trick: stealing a bit of the egg I’m already using for the dough. Just pour off about 1 tbsp of beaten egg into a separate container and refrigerate it alongside the dough. The tiny difference in liquid doesn’t matter in a dough this forgiving, and there’s no need to waste most of an extra egg. Smart, huh?
Five-Fold Challah (makes 1 large loaf or 2 small loaves)
Note: Per the original recipe, if you really don’t have time to let the dough rise overnight, you can cheat a bit. Do an additional two or three folds–seven or eight in total–then cover the bowl and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to work with. It’s still not quick, exactly, but it means you can have bread that same day.
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup (6 oz/170 g) water, plus more as needed
1/3 cup (75 g) vegetable, canola, or light olive oil
1/4 cup (85 g) honey*
4 cups (480 g) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
2 tsp (12 g) kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp (4.25 g) instant yeast
Poppy seeds and/or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
*If you can’t do honey, substitute 1/3 cup (65 g) granulated sugar. You’ll have to add a bit more water to get the dough to the the right consistency.
In a measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together eggs, egg yolk, and a pinch of salt. Measure out 1 tbsp of the beaten egg into a small container, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge (this will be your egg wash later). Add water, oil, and honey to the rest of the eggs, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and yeast. Add the wet ingredients and mix until a wet dough forms. The dough should stick to your fingers a bit, but mostly pull away from the side of the bowl. If it feels too wet to handle, add a bit more flour; if it feels too dry, add a splash of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or a clean kitchen towel, and let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes.
Lightly moisten your hands with water. Uncover the bowl, grab an edge of the dough, and fold it over into the center. (At this point, it will feel more like smushing than folding.) Turn the bowl and repeat, working your way around the dough, about eight folds in all. Flip the dough over so that the folded side is on the bottom. Re-cover the bowl and let sit for about 30 minutes.
Repeat the folding process four more times; with each fold, the dough will become stretchier and more elastic. After the fifth and final fold, cover the bowl tightly with a lid or plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight (at least 16 and up to 24 hours).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and lightly dust a work surface with flour. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and divide into three pieces (for one large loaf) or six pieces (for two small loaves). Roll each piece of dough into a log, adding just enough flour as you go to keep the dough from sticking. Braid three dough pieces together and tuck the ends under. You can leave the braided loaf as is, or wrap it into a circle and pinch the ends together. (If making two small loaves, repeat this process with the remaining dough.)
Transfer the braided challah to the baking sheet. Dust the top very lightly with flour, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise for 2-3 hours, until the dough doesn’t bounce back when poked with your finger. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375º F.
Gently brush the reserved egg wash all over the challah, and sprinkle with seeds (if using). Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 25-30 minutes for a large loaf or 15-20 minutes for two small ones. If making one large loaf, you may need to cover it with a piece of aluminum foil (shiny side facing out) after about 20 minutes; this will keep it from browning too much before the inside is done.
Remove the challah from the oven and transfer it to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before tearing into it.
Leftovers: To keep leftover challah fresh, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and place in a zip-top bag. It will keep at room temperature for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Or you can cut your leftover challah into thick slices, let it go stale on the counter overnight, and make French toast in the morning.