Honey and Olive Oil Challah
Sabbath eve dinner is a special time in Israel, one where families get together whether they’re religiously observant or not. On a typical Shabbat table two challahs are covered with a cloth, hands are ritually washed and blessed, and then the bread is blessed separately before being cut and shared. This ritual kicks off Shabbat in homes all over the world, and in Israel the whole country exhales a collective sigh as loaves are sliced and eaten and a day of rest commences. There are a thousand challah recipes under the sun, but this is the only one you’ll need. It comes courtesy of my friend Uri Scheft, founder of Lehamim and Breads bakeries in Tel Aviv and New York, respectively. Making challah on Friday is one of the purest pleasures of my week, and even more so now that I use Uri’s recipe.
He visited my kitchen one day to share his secrets for perfect challah. If you follow the instructions, the recipe is foolproof and solves a lot of the problems challah bakers have. Among many master bakers’ tricks, one step—developing the gluten in the flour by tearing it and folding it over for about a minute—sets this dough apart. But even if you let the dough rise a drop too little or too much or your braids are uneven, you will have some of the best challah you’ve ever tasted: moist and springy, with perfect crumb. The recipe makes three loaves; I like to make two challahs, then use the third piece of dough to create Uri’s Za’atar Chili Feta Bread. You can use any filling you want; use my ingredients as a guideline.
5 teaspoons instant (rapid-rise) yeast
7 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed and for shaping
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
⅓ cup honey
1 tablespoon fine sea salt, plus more for egg wash
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
⅔ cup sesame or poppy seeds, or a combination
Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast and 1¾ cups room-temperature water together. Attach the dough hook, then add the flour, 2 eggs, the sugar, honey, salt, and olive oil. Mix the dough on low speed to combine the ingredients, then increase the speed to medium and knead until a smooth dough forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed and adding flour by the tablespoonful if the dough feels overly tacky, or water by the tablespoonful if the dough feels overly dry, 4 minutes. Very lightly flour a work surface, transfer the dough from the mixing bowl to the work surface, and use your palms to push and tear the top of the dough away from you in one stroke, then fold that section onto the middle of the dough. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the process 15 times. Tuck the ends of the dough underneath to form a ball.
Lightly dust a bowl with flour, add the dough, sprinkle the top with a drop of flour, cover, and rest in a warm place until the dough has almost doubled in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on how hot the room is. Gently lift the dough out of the bowl and transfer it to a very lightly floured work surface, being careful not to deflate it. Pull the dough into a rectangular shape, then use a sharp chef’s knife to divide the dough into 3 long pieces. Take 1 piece of dough, cover it with a kitchen towel, and refrigerate it for another use, like the Za’atar Chili Feta Bread, while you deal with the challahs.
Cut each of the remaining 2 pieces of dough into 3 smaller equal parts crosswise so you end up with a total of 6 rectangular pieces. Use the palm of your hand to flatten 1 piece of dough into a rectangle. Fold the top portion over and use your palm to press the edge into the flat part of the dough. Fold and press 3 more times until you have a 7-inch-long cylinder. Set this piece aside and repeat with the other 5 pieces so you have 6 cylinders. Roll each cylinder into a 14-inch rope with tapered ends and very lightly flour the long ropes (this helps them look defined during baking). Pinch the ends of 3 ropes together at the top (weigh them down with a can or chef’s knife if you like). Braid the dough, lifting each piece up and over so the braid is more stacked than it is long and is fatter and taller at the middle than at the ends. Press and seal the ends together on each. Repeat with the remaining 3 ropes, creating 2 braided challahs.
Place the challahs on parchment paper–lined rimmed sheet pans, cover them with a kitchen towel or loosely with a small plastic bag, and let them rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, 40 to 45 minutes depending on how warm the room is.
Fit the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Once the challah loaves have roughly doubled in size, do the press test: Press your finger lightly into the dough, remove it, and see if the depression fills in by half. If the depression fills back in quickly and completely, the dough needs more time to rise; if you press the dough and it slightly deflates, the dough has over-proofed and will be heavier and less airy after baking.
Bake the loaves: Make the egg wash by mixing the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water and a pinch of salt together in a small bowl. Gently brush the entire surface of the loaves with a thin layer of egg wash (try to avoid extra egg wash in the folds of the braids). Generously sprinkle the loaves with the seeds, trying to adhere seeds to the sides of the loaves as well as the top.
Bake for 15 minutes. Transfer the bottom sheet pan to the top and the top sheet pan to the bottom, turning each sheet around as you go, and bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 10 minutes longer. Remove the loaves from the oven and set them aside to cool completely on the sheet pans.