Despite my lack of religious belief I recognise that there is a power in the routine and structure of keeping Shabbat. It’s a difficult acknowledgement for me because I seem to fight both routine and structure at a visceral level, but Friday night was an important part of my childhood and I kept that desire to set Friday night apart when I had my own family.
Whatever goes right when I keep Shabbat has a knock-on effect for the rest of the week. Making Challah bread is a big part of that, and along with lighting candles on Friday the ritual provides structure that my life is lacking elsewhere. Obviously you don’t have to be Jewish to do this, and you could pick any day to mark out as special. I find it a helpful thing to do, especially during times like lockdown when one day can start blending into the next.
I have tried various Challah recipes and I think this is the best. It is adapted from Claudia Roden’s ‘The Book of Jewish Food’ and it makes two loaves which is what you need for Shabbat.
If there’s any left after Friday then the chocolate chip version is great toasted and eaten with marmalade, and plain challah is excellent as French toast with cinnamon, blueberries, honey and greek yogurt. I’ll post that as a separate recipe later on!
Ingredients for 2 Challah
- 1 pack easy blend dried yeast
- 250ml lukewarm water
- 50g sugar (75g for sweet version)
- 2 eggs (plus extra yolk for glaze)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 650g strong white bread flour
- (50g dark chocolate chips)
Measure everything out. If you want to make this in a food mixer you can just chuck everything (except the chocolate chips if you’re using them) into a mixer with a dough hook and set it running. Keep an eye on the mix – it should look slightly sticky but come together into a smooth dough. If it looks dry add a little more water, too wet add a little more flour. It takes about 5-10 minutes to mix.
If you’re making it by hand then add about a teaspoon of the sugar and all of the yeast to the warm water. Stir well and leave for 10 minutes or so until it all froths. (If it doesn’t froth you’ve probably forgotten the sugar. I do that a lot).
In a large bowl, beat together the two eggs and then beat in the remaining sugar, the salt and the oil. Add the frothed yeast mixture to that lot and give it a stir. Then add the flour bit at a time and mix. When you can’t mix anymore knead for 15 minutes or so until the texture becomes stretchy and elastic.
You’re after a dough that is a teeny bit sticky – it shouldn’t be too dry, but it should eventually lift off the edges of the bowl into one smooth blob.
With either method, when you get this smooth, stretchy dough put it in a large greased bowl, cover with beeswax food wrap or a clean damp tea towel and leave to rise somewhere warm for a couple of hours. It should double in size.
When it has doubled in size divide it in half so you will have two loaves.
Split each half of the dough into three to make strands approximately 30 cm or so in length. For each loaf plait the 3 strands together on an oiled baking sheet and leave them to rise for another hour or so. Then beat the yolk of an egg and brush it over the bread to glaze it (freeze the egg whites as they’re good for meringues).
Bake for about 40 minutes at Gas 4 180°C, or 350° F until it’s brown and sounds hollow when you tap the base. This does get very dark because of the egg glaze; don’t worry it’s not burning and the texture is amazing as you get a good crust with a soft inside.
The only advice I’ve found useful for plaiting Challah is to start in the middle and plait to the end, then start in the middle again and plait backwards. There are a lot of people far more adept at this than I am so give YouTube a try if you can’t work out how to do it.
Sweet Chocolate Chip Version
I often make half this dough chocolate chip just by adding about 50g of dark choc chips to one of the two loaves before plaiting. However, if you know at the beginning that you want all the challah to be chocolate chip then use 75g of sugar instead of 50g in the initial mix. Put the chocolate chips in after the initial rise before you plait it, not at the beginning of the process.
At synagogue plain challah is torn up and served with salt; you can sprinkle some on before eating. At home we have it with salt or with butter, but always tear it rather than slice it.