Bread transforms a collection of food into a traditional Jewish meal, and challah, the bread of Shabbat, is the crown jewel of traditional Jewish breads. I learned to bake challah from my mother and her mother, but I didn't really become an accomplished challah baker until I had the right recipe. We spent the summer of 1975 in Los Alamos, NM. There we enjoyed a Shabbat dinner at the home of Phyllis and Jim Frank, including the best challah we'd ever eaten. They graciously gave me the recipe, which I've modified over the years. The success of this challah inspired me to make nearly all the bread we eat. Whenever one of our daughters travels to a new place, I pack a loaf of challah to ease the separation and to give them sustenance until they find a new source of kosher food.
I quote from Philologos On Language, Forward, 1/23/2004: ...it is difficult to determine whether the Hebrew root h-l-l [het, lamed, lamed],from which [c]hallah and m'holot derive, originally had to do with roundness and then also came to indicate hollowness, or originally had to do with hollowness and then also came to indicate roundness...Challah bread originally was halled [c]hallah in Hebrew because it was baked -- as it sometimes still is -- in the form of a round loaf. According to Philologos, the meaning portion, often ascribed to the word challah, as in taking challah (and then burning the portion to remember the bread-offering made to the priests in the Temple in ancient times), is a secondary meaning of the word.
Source: Adapted from Second Helpings, Please, Mt. Sinai Chapter #1091, Montreal B'nai Brith Women, District 22, 1968.
Oven Temp: 365°F.
Yield: 2 loaves, (alternatively, this yields 40 ounces of dough to make 20-2 ounce rolls, which should be baked 20 min. at 375°F.; use 1 1/2 recipes for a single "simcha" loaf, braided with six braids, and baked at 325°F. for about 45-55 minutes until the internal temperature is 190°F.)
This recipe can easily be doubled, but if you want to make more than a double recipe, I'd mix and knead several batches in succession, putting the dough together to rise. It's just too hard to properly knead a larger amount of dough. It can be made entirely by hand, in a heavy-duty mixer, or in a food processor. The easiest method is with a food processor; choose one that is rated for bread making and has a bowl that is at least 1.5 times the volume of all the ingredients you are using. If you use a mixer or work by hand, be sure to knead the dough for at least 10 minutes.
Bread flour, with its higher gluten content gives a better texture than all-purpose flour.
Dissolve yeast in water, add 1 tsp. sugar, and set this aside for about 5 minutes to become foamy (proofing the yeast). Put all the flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the plastic (dough) blade. Add the remaining sugar and salt. Turn on the processor, and add water/yeast mixture, oil, and 2 eggs all at once. If the liquid is not immediately incorporated into the flour, turn off the motor, scrape down the sides, and turn the motor back on. Knead the dough in the food processor for a total of two or three minutes (or by hand for at least 10 minutes), incorporating more flour, in 1/4 cup portions, until the dough feels like your ear lobe. Rub the inside of a large glass or stainless steel bowl with a bit of oil. Put the dough in the bowl, covered, and let rise for 1.5 hrs or until the dough has doubled.
Try to keep the dough in a reasonably warm (65-70°) part of your kitchen. In the winter, when my house is fairly cool, I put the rising dough on the counter above my dishwasher, and run a load of dishes while the dough is rising. If your kitchen is too cold, you'll just need to wait a bit longer for the dough to double.
(If you don't have time to complete the entire process at once, you can refrigerate the kneaded dough for up to 24 hours, leaving plenty of room to rise in a well covered bowl. Then punch down the dough, cover, and bring it to room temperature. Continue with the recipe.)
Each time you punch down the dough or when you form the loaves, use your palms, not your finger tips. If you use your palms, the dough remains elastic and smooth. If you use your finger tips, the dough becomes stringy and sticky and difficult to manage.
Punch down dough, cover, and let double again. Punch down dough, divide into 2 parts, then into 4 braids each. Roll the braids back and forth on the counter with your hands until they are about 10 inches long. Braid each set of four into a loaf. Press the braided loaf gently with your whole hand into a log-shape to get rid of any air pockets. Spray two loaf pans with vegetable oil. I use steel (either black or natural) 4.5"x9"x2.5" pans from the Bridge Company, N.Y. Put the loaves in the prepared pans, and cover with warm damp towels.
Preheat the oven at this time, so it's at the correct temperature when the loaves are ready to bake.
Let the loaves rise until nearly double, about 30 minutes. Brush with beaten egg, sprinkle with seeds.
Bake loaves for 30-35 minutes.
If you have room, it's better to use only the upper third of the oven. If you need to use both oven racks, be sure to rotate the loaves after 15 minutes. This is particularly important if you are using black steel pans, which work beautifully on the upper oven rack but brown too quickly on the lower rack. Cool 15-20 minutes on a cooling rack before serving.
If you bake more than you can finish in a day or two, freeze the completely cool loaves in a double layer of aluminum foil or double-bag them in freezer bags. If you have a freezer that is NOT frost-free, use this for baked goods to avoid excessive drying. Challah will keep for a month or two in the freezer. Defrost at room temperature, in the foil or freezer bags, but discard the wrapping after defrosting because of the buildup of condensation. It's always worth extra care when wrapping your baked goods so they don't pick up flavors from the freezer or become dried out.