I feel that I should say I am not an observant Jew. In fact, I’m less Jewish, more Jew-ish. My stepfather’s family are the Chosen Ones, and I just claim to be one of their number by association. Growing up, framed photos of my mother’s Baptist missionary relatives were displayed alongside those of my stepfather’s Russian family. The latter looked like stills from Once Upon a Time in America.
On Wednesday, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown. It start the Ten Days of Repentance that conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is my experience that while the High Holidays are all about repentance, they are also about having good things to eat. You suffer a little, you fast, and then you feast on symbolic foods to bless the New Year with sweetness. One of these foods is challah.
Challah is a delicious bread eaten on the Sabbath. It reminds Jews of the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites. It reminds my Catholic mother-in-law of brioche. She’s not wrong. The dough is enriched with eggs, oil, and sugar and for Rosh Hashanah I add honey. Loaves are braided so the strands resemble entwined arms representing love. At New Year, they are braided into rounds to represent the circle of life and the sobering notion of wholeness.
If you’re not Jewish, please don’t let that stop you from making challah. This is a bread that deserves to be enjoyed by everyone…
Honey challah bread
4 cups all purpose flour + an extra ½ cup for kneading
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ cup + 1 tsp caster sugar
3 tablespoons runny honey
3 eggs (1 of which needs to be separated)
¼ cup sunflower oil + a bit extra to grease a bowl
1 cup hot water
2 teaspoons or a 7 oz packet of active dry yeast
1. Pour the hot water in a small bowl. Make sure it’s not too hot. Kinehora! Or you’ll kill the yeast. A good way to tell is if you can touch it. Can you comfortably put a finger in it? If the answer is yes, stir in the teaspoon of sugar and yeast. If you can’t, let the water cool a minute. Allow the yeast to activate for about five minutes.
2. In a large bowl, sift together four cups of flour, the salt and the remaining sugar.
3. In another bowl, combine the oil with the honey and the two eggs plus the extra yolk. Reserve the white for later.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients. Pour the egg mixture into the centre of it and then the yeast slurry. Mix it all together with a wooden spoon.
5. When the dough comes together but it is still quite shaggy, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. This is what the extra ½ cup of flour is for. Knead the dough until it is supple, but not sticky. This takes about eight to 10 minutes by hand. If the dough has the consistency of chewing gum, add more flour a tablespoon at a time.
6. Wash and dry the large bowl that was used to combine everything. Lightly grease it with a bit of oil then place the ball of dough inside it. Roll the dough around to coat it. Cover the top with a damp dishtowel or lightly oiled cling film and place the bowl somewhere warm for the dough to double in bulk (approximately one to two hours). My favourite places are near a radiator, in direct sunlight or in an oven that’s off but with a pot of freshly boiled water on the shelf underneath—this keeps it warm and moist.
7. Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and turn it out on the counter. Divide it into four equal pieces. Keep the pieces covered in the bowl until you roll them out.
8. Taking one piece at a time, flatten it with a rolling pin into a rectangle with a width of a couple inches. Roll the rectangle into a rope with your hands. Keep rolling until the rope is about 16ins in length. Repeat this until you have four ropes.
9. Braiding the challah is a slightly complicated process, so my best advice is watch and copy this YouTube video which provides a handy demonstration.
10. Place the round on baking paper in a pie tin or on a tray. Cover it and allow it to rise once again, about another hour or two. Do not skip this. The second rising is very important. You’ll know it’s ready for baking if you press a finger into the dough and the indent remains. If it doesn’t, let it rise a little longer.
11. Preheat the oven to 180°C/170°C fan assisted/Gas 4.
12. Paint the challah with a thin layer of egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
13. Bake the challah for 20 minutes then remove it from the oven and repaint the crevices of the braid with some more egg white. Return it to the oven for another 20 to 25 minutes. If your challah looks like it’s browning too fast too soon, tent it with foil. If you do this, be sure to pierce the foil with a fork so the steam doesn’t make the bread soggy. Also remember to remove the foil for the last few minutes of baking.
14. Usually I know the bread is done when I can smell it. It will be a beautiful glossy brown and the bottom will sound hollow when tapped. At this point, remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.