Back to Baking – Honey Challah


One of the strategies I use to make it through the eight long, flat, matzah-days of Passover is to fantasize about the challah I’m going to start baking as soon as the holiday is over.

I’ve made challah often enough in the past that even when I don’t bake for a while, I still have a strong sense-memory of what to do. But the week after Pesach—my first time back to baking challah in six months!—there was definitely an extra tingle in my fingertips when I plunged my hands into the warm, thick dough. I had to take a few extra breaths of the nutty-malty smell right at that moment when I add the sponge to the rest of the ingredients…It’s the smell of the anti-Pesach, the aroma of pure chametz, the yeast busy doing its magic, raising the roofs of a hundred (a thousand?) tiny bubbles in a bit of flour and water, sitting under the hot lights on my kitchen counter.

The recipe I use, from Nick Malgieri’s wonderful cookbook, How to Bake, is Yocheved Hirsch’s Round Challah recipe. I turn to it year-round even though it’s supposed to be for Rosh Hashanah; I just skip the raisins and make braids rather than round loaves.

This recipe calls for 5 cups of flour, and I’ve tried a lot of combinations before arriving at a blend of three cups wheat flour and two cups of spelt. I’m still on the lookout for the absolutely perfect flour—any suggestions?—but my wheat/spelt blend seems better than the alternatives. Regular wheat is too refined and makes what I call Wonder-challah. Whole wheat flour is too heavy (and no one in my family will eat it). I’ve also experimented with various proportions of spelt flour and found that all-spelt and mostly-spelt challah is too crumbly and doesn’t taste quite right, but 3/5 wheat and 2/5 spelt seems to give the challah a bit of extra body and flavor (and maybe slightly more nutritional value, depending on what nutrients you’re looking for).

I made the dough with my two-year-old: Pure joy! Pure mess! He has a pretty impressive egg-cracking technique, but the dry ingredients don’t all make it into the bowl. He also does an extensive taste-test on the sucanat (a non-refined cane sugar) before pouring that in. Later, in the afternoon, we had six-handed kneading when my older son got home from school. I don’t know if the networks will ever televise it, but there’s a new sport in my house: x-treme kneading. I usually like to let the challah rise again between the kneading and the braiding—and after that punching, I probably should have—but I was running late and the grandparents were coming to dinner, so we went right to the next step. I split the dough into two balls. My little one was content to sprinkle flour on the table as I braided our portion. My older son took one look at my traditional loaf and decided to turn his portion into a “monster” challah.

cfh1.jpgAfter the second rise—about an hour—it was time to paint. I’d learned from Challah for Hunger founder Eli Winkelman that she paints her challah with honey instead of egg. So we embarked on an experiment: my traditional braided challah got painted with egg, and the monster challah got honey. My older son also emptied about half a bag of sesame seeds on his loaf.

The recipe calls for 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees, but when I looked into the oven after fifteen minutes, the challot were totally done and totally flat. Not matzah-flat, but close. As we prepared to light Shabbat candles, we traded theories about why the loaves were so flat: Was it because they rose just twice, instead of the ideal three times? Or maybe the ingredient proportions were slightly off, thanks to my little co-baker? Was it the workout my older son gave the dough?

But looks aren’t everything. Half-delirious from the incredible smell of freshly baked challah by the time we sat down to our Shabbat dinner, everyone clamored for a piece of both loaves, the egg-painted and the honey-painted. The vote was unanimous: we love honey. My mom said she’d like more honey, please, next time. (Thank you, Eli!) And count on young bakers to arrive at the best innovations. The extra-thick layer of seeds formed a sesame crust on my son’s bread that was just delicious. Monster challah rules!

I’d say the most important ingredient in the first time back to challah baking is a philosophical perspective. I don’t get too attached to the way the challah comes out; I’m more invested in the process, the fact that I’m doing it again. The word challah comes from the offering, the bit of dough that is traditionally taken from the batch of bread and burned in memory of the bread offering at the Temple. The first time back, I view the entire bread as “taken” challah, an offering of thanks to the Divine Creator who has ushered me once again into the kitchen of the universe.

Related Posts
Vegan Challah – click here
Sourdough Foccacia – click here
What’s so Jewish about bagels? – click here

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16 Responses to “Back to Baking – Honey Challah”

  1. Rachel B. Says:

    Sounds good, thanks. I never thought to paint the loaves with honey.
    I also have a problem with flat challah – the ovenspring is where my process breaks down. It rises great but when I put the pan in a preheated oven – pffft! Flat.
    Anyone have any advice?

  2. debby Says:

    Have you tried white wheat flour? King Arthur makes it, and it’s a whole wheat flour that’s much lighter than the regular whole wheat.

  3. ShopLittleGifts Says:

    WOW that looks good. I just made french toast yesterday with challah. It’s the best bread, soaks up all the milk and egg mixture. Btw, try adding a little cinammon, it will be great mix with the honey.

  4. Nick Malgieri Says:

    Dear Elena,

    Phyllis forwarded me your very kind e-mail and a link to read about your challah adventures, which are fun and informative. I actually started out writing for newspaper food sections by covering Jewish holiday pastries for the Daily News years ago – no one was interested in doing it, so I was able to fill a gap. I wrote about Teyglech, Hammantaschen, and did countless Passover dessert stories.

    Now, about the challah. Normally you get that flattening out when the braid has risen too much right before being baked. Like any other dough or batter that has too much air or leavening, it just can’t set quickly enough to stay risen. You have further compromised the elastic strength of the dough by adding a non-gluten-forming flour. A less elastic dough will also have trouble holding in enough air to stay risen. Brushing cold honey on the braid might also deflate it a little, just from the pressure of the brush against the dough.

    So here are my suggestions: under- rather than over-do the final rise before baking; use Yocheved’s recipe the way it appears in the book – she is probably the most talented teacher of Kosher cooking and baking ever to teach in the New York area (she now lives in Tel Aviv). No challah recipe of hers would ever resemble Wonder Bread, I assure you. If you must paint the outside with honey, warm it slightly to liquefy it, then add a little water. If you have a clean atomizer or spray bottle, use that to apply it so you’re not putting pressure on the risen dough with a brush.

    Mazel tov,

    Nick Malgieri

  5. Patricia Scarpin Says:

    That is a wonderful loaf of bread!

  6. Rosa Says:

    Your Challah loaves look great! It is one of my favorite breads…

    I have also tried Joan Nathan’s Wholewheat Challah and it was gorgeous!



  7. Elena Says:

    To all the challah bakers–thanks for the tips!

    Nick, it’s great to get your suggestions here. I feel like my cookbook is speaking to me! I never realized that the dough could rise too much; it seems counter-intuitive that getting too tall would be the thing to make the challah flat…chalk that up to my beginner-baker status. I love the idea of spraying honey on the challah. I’m sure my kids would love that too!

    Rachel, do Nick’s suggestions help you out at all?

    Debby, thanks for the lead on King Arthur. I just looked at their website and I’m definitely going to try the organic white whole wheat. An employee-owned company that talks about a culture of inclusiveness–I’m buying!

  8. Elena Says:

    PS–The King Arthur website lists a lot of kosher products, including many flours!

  9. Hillary Says:

    Awww! This makes me so happy. I need to make this at some point. I have never made my own challah and this recipe is telling me it’s about time I start!

  10. Sarah Says:

    Have you tried a blend of AP, spelt and Kamut flours?? They make for a great, rich-tasting bread that’s not too heavy. It’s my current obsession!

    PS – yay for challah… its a fave!

  11. leora Says:

    Sarah – what are you flour ratios? Sounds yummy! Thanks Elena for this post – that is EXACTLY how I get through Pesach as well, though I wouldn’t have known to verbalize that truth (guilt, maybe :-)

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