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Bakin’ Challah

With its familiar rich, tender crumb, Challah bread is a dough steeped with Jewish tradition. In this whole wheat version, honey lends sweetness, while tart raisins add a chewy bite.

Whole wheat Challah bread

Inspiration from the recent Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah lend itself to this moist, sweet Challah recipe. Challah is a traditional braided bread, eaten on the Sabbath and holidays by Ashkenazi and by most Sephardic Jews. The six-legged braid of the traditional loaf represents the six challot that Moses was to place before the Lord.

Observant Jews recite three blessings prior to their meal on Friday evenings, and the last blessing is over two covered loaves of challah, giving thanks for the bread of the Earth. As Joan Nathan states is her book, The Jewish Holiday Baker, “On the Sabbath, the bread becomes a symbol of holiness…[t]he blessing over the bread at the beginning of every meal connects the Jews continuously to the food that grows in the earth and to God.”

The traditional Rosh Hashanah challah is braided and then rolled into a circle, a symbol of the year’s cycle. A honey glaze is sometimes added, with hopes for a sweet year. An easier method is to shape the portions into loaves, and bake in loaf pans. The dough can also be braided and left as a long loaf.

Representing religious and historical significance, Challah bread is an integral part of Jewish life. Families make the bread each week before the Sabbath or purchase it from a Jewish bakery.

Of course, many non-Jews enjoy the rich bread as well, and bakeries around the world prepare Challah in many ways, adding honey, raisins, seeds, saffron, cardamom, or other flavoring agents to increase flavor. Challah is a sweet bread, perfect for toast with jam or in making french toast. An egg bread similar to brioche, it is enriched by oil instead of butter or milk. This recipe uses a portion of whole wheat flour and honey, for a sweet, earthy flavor and raisins plumped in orange juice, for a tangy chew.

Whole Wheat Challah recipe
*makes two loaves

1 1/2 tbsp instant yeast
3/4 cup warm water, 90 degrees Farenheit
1 tbsp sugar
5 eggs, room temperature, +1 for egg wash
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp salt
4 cups AP flour
4 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 cup raisins, soaked in warm orange juice and drained
Poppy seeds or sesame seeds for garnishing

1. In a medium sized bowl, or bowl of stand mixer, combine water, sugar and yeast. Let sit for 10 minutes, until yeast is frothy.

2. Combine the eggs, honey, salt, vanilla, and oil in a second bowl. When yeast is frothy, add the egg mixture to the yeast. Add one cup of flour at a time, until all the flour has been incorporated. When you have a shaggy dough, turn out onto board and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, at least 10 minutes. If using a mixer, mix with dough hook until smooth. Soak the bowl in hot water during kneading process to prepare for proofing.

3. Grease the bowl with a small amount of vegetable oil and place dough inside, rolling over to coat both sides with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm space to proof to double in size, 1-2 hours depending on your kitchen. You can also proof inside a warm, but turned off oven.

4. Punch dough down, by pushing down on the center of loaf, to release gas build up. Cover and proof for another thirty minutes.

5. After proofed, knead raisins into dough. Divide dough in two pieces and shape as desired, either in loaves or breads. If braiding, divide dough into six pieces and roll into logs. Stick logs together at one end and braid. When finished, stick dough ends together to seal. Keep as long braid, or bring ends together for a ball shape. Place on a greased sheet, with two inches between the loaves or in  loaf pans for normal loaves.

6. Beat egg with 1/4 cup of water. Brush onto loaves. Let rise one hour.

7. After the third rise, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and re-brush the loaves with egg wash and honey. Sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds if desired. Bake in the center rack of oven for 40-60 minutes, until golden brown and internal temperature reaches 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool loaves on rack. Once cooled, you can freeze loaves for future use, or store wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator.

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