The best challah recipe you’ll ever taste.
This is your traditional can’t-get-enough, soft, tearing-long-strands, perfectly sweet, Bubbe’s-childhood-memory-evoking deliciousness!
The special treat has a rich history behind it, so let’s get some definitions and historical facts straight before we create and enjoy our beautiful challah.
As one of the most iconic of all Jewish foods, challah is assuredly more ritual than recipe. Though it incorporates special covers, boards, trays, tins, cookbooks and (sometimes) knives, making challah is about more than just “things;” perhaps more importantly, it’s about prayers, initiation rituals, recipes and secrets.
Challah is omnipresent in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora, especially in the United States where, in many places, it’s a deli and supermarket staple, be it in the form of the ultimate French toast or even in a kugel, a Jewish baked pudding.
Braided, egg-enriched bread is made in many other European cuisines. In Vienna, as in many other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the locals claim their own local bread, presenting their own version of traditional braided bread as shtritsls, kalacs, and what-not. In German-speaking regions like Vienna, there’s even a so-called Zopf, which is German for “braided hair.” And don’t even start with the French about their wonderful brioche!
Most of these rather sweet, yeasty, and egg-rich delicacies are eaten on Sundays and holidays with butter, honey, and jam. The main difference between the gentile and the Jewish version is the absence of dairy products in the latter. This is to confrom to Jewish religious laws, which do not allow the mixing of dairy and meat.
Traditional challah recipes use oil instead of butter and milk, and add eggs. (Water challos is German with a distinct sourdough flavor and added potatoes to help the action of the yeast.)
What’s particular about the Jewish tradition and where’s the strong connection to Vienna? Let’s start at the beginning.
In 2008, a third-century amulet inscribed with the central Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael was discovered in a Roman child’s grave in a burial ground near Vienna. This “archeological sensation,” as it was called in the headlines, remains the earliest trace of Jewish inhabitants in present-day Austria.
Thus, there were already Jews on the site of modern-day Vienna before the city existed officially, or at least since the late Roman Empire, when Jews made up a sizeable portion of its population.
A couple of hundred years earlier, before Christian persecution of the Jews, when the temple in Jerusalem was still standing, the word “challah” exclusively referred to the portion of a bread or dough donated, to the Kohanim (priests), from every dough that was prepared as described in the Book of Numbers 15:18-20.
These donated portions, each about the size of an olive, had to be handed over in the form of loaves befitting the status of a priest. It was meant for their sustenance, “in order that the priests, who are always occupied with Divine service, should live without any exertion,” (Sefer ha-Hinnukh, no. 385). However, they were nothing like what we know as challah today. How they really looked is the object of interesting and long discussions in the Talmud.
After Titus’ Roman legions destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the priests could no longer officiate, the rabbis decreed that the priestly portion had still to be taken from the dough in order to keep the memory of this holy obligation alive. With no temple though, the dough had to be destroyed — most often via burning — which some communities see as protection from the “evil eye.” Challah — or any bread from which this small portion has not been taken and destroyed — is not considered kosher. Thus, the priestly portion itself became an unconsumable rest.
Since then, the table in every Jewish home is seen as a little temple, and the Shabbos challah loaves represent the so-called twelve showbreads displayed in the temple in Jerusalem before its destruction as described in Leviticus 24:5-8. Those loaves of bread were flat, round, and made from semolina-like flour, but the exact shape and form is also subject of discussion.
Meanwhile, Jewish Vienna resurfaced from the dark middle ages with written evidence from the twelfth century onwards — as such a Jew named Shlomo is mentioned as Duke Frederick I’s mint master in 1194. That’s when one of the leading rabbis of those times was born: Vienna’s rabbi Yitzhak bar Moishe, aka Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (ca. 1200-1270), also called the Riaz, was the author of Or Zarua (אור זרוע), which literally means “the arm of light.”
And it is here that in the early fourteen-hundreds Israel Isserlein (1390-1460), the famous author of Trumas HaDeshen (תרומת הדשן), an important foundation of Jewish law, for the first time extended the meaning of the word challah to the whole of the Shabbos bread, so that it no longer referred only to the small priestly portion.
This usage of the word challah came about because, first, Rabbi Isserlein miraculously escaped death during the Viennese Gzerah (גזרה), Vienna’s decree from 1421 in which the local authorities had decided to systematically annihilate the Jewish population and among other horrors, to burn two hundred Jews alive.
Second, as noted in John Cooper’s wonderful 1993 book, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, we learned about the rabbi’s use of the word challah because it was later compiled together with many other customs of Rabbi Isserlein by his student Joseph ben Moses of Austria (1423–1490?) in the latter’s halakhic (Jewish Law) collection, Leket Yosher (לקט יושר), which dates back to 1488.
Later, all of this spread to the rest of Ashkenaz (Jewish central and eastern Europe) and beyond, back to Israel and onto the new world. And that’s how challah, as we know it today, came from a book by a Viennese rabbi.
Notwithstanding Vienna’s (at times) extremely hostile environment, challah took on its particular shape and form in Austria and southern Germany at around the same time, according to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The distinctive embellishment of loaves of bread with various styles of braidings was seemingly adopted from surrounding populations. Some argue that the reason so many separatist laws and decrees were put in place by authorities on both Christian and Jewish sides was that there was quite a lot of mingling going on, at least in the public space. Anyway, that’s how, when, and where the braided strands of dough started to make up challah loaves.
In Vienna, often four strands are braided to form a challah, but six became very popular as the two customary loaves for each meal made up a total of twelve strands representing the twelfth showbreads of the temple. There are two loaves for each meal because of the double portion of manna that fell from heaven and was bestowed upon the Jews in the morning before Shabbos so as not to make them work. They would then collect the manna on Shabbos itself.
Vienna was at the heart of the Western Yiddish region, and it is the resemblance of Yiddish’s “monn” (poppy seed) to the Yiddish pronunciation of “manna” that is at the root of the use of poppy seeds as topping for challah. French medieval Talmudic and biblical commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi), held that manna somewhat looked like sesame, which is why there’s often sesame on a challah.
In some areas, it is also common to use saffron in challah because manna was yellow, though eggs fulfill the same purpose. For a classic challah recipe however, this would amount to eight ingredients together with flour, sugar, yeast, salt, water, eggs and oil — a highly undesirable number. Why this? According to The Haimische Kitchen, written by the pious Ladies’ Auxiliary of Nitra (Mount Kisco in New York) named after the city 60 miles northeast of Vienna from where they were murdered and chased during World War Two, a true challah recipe “includes seven ingredients, corresponding to the seven days of the week.” At this point, we should remember the many other challah traditions that were lost forever due to the annihilation of European Jewry.
Coincidentally, another major ingredient for challah, yeast, though used since the Egyptians, in its modern form is also a Jewish product that was first perfected in Vienna by Hungarian Charles Louis Fleischmann, before he moved to the United States. There, he founded the well-known consumer and industrial yeast brand Fleischmann’s Yeast.
So we see that challah’s name and shape date back to the Viennese middle ages. But the real sweetness came to challah much later as an additional allusion to manna, which had originally tasted like honey when pounded into cakes. Sweetness became affordable with the industrial revolution, in fact, parallel to the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment (ca. 1770-1881). Around this time, sugar prices dropped due to its large-scale mechanical extraction: it no longer had to be imported, as it would now come from locally grown sugar beets.
One cannot but notice the synchronicity with enlightenment’s secularist push precisely when religious practices, like eating challah, had to become even more addictive to keep the pious flock at the table.
With the big smile of one that just had deliciously sweet challah — meaning not overly sweet — I understand that the distinctive form of cultural Judaism, which is culinary Judaism, surely is a result of this fight between enlightenment and its reactionary antagonists. Challah is not only an expression of an actively practiced religious belief, or even the fond memory of a passing tradition; it’s also the expression of a living culinary culture.
Traditionally, Jewish mothers would teach their daughters how to make the sweet braided bread. Even though some tend to romanticize a women’s role in the shtetl world, women were (typically) marginalized in areas like religion, family, work, education, culture, and political life. To this end, the act of setting aside the challah portion, together with the obligation to light the Shabbos and festival candles and keeping in-line with laws pertaining to menstruation, was seen as a punishment for the original sin, as an atonement for female disobedience in the garden of Eden (Genesis Rabbah 17:8). Hassidic ideas directed especially at women may obviously present things quite differently to their audience. It was a general trend to sacralize popular rituals, like bread-making for Shabbos and holidays, thus lending greater value to female religious rituals (see Encyclopedia Judaica on Women).
In our age and time, Jewish and non-Jewish crowds flock around bakers treated like gurus when they show how to make challah to a crowd of mostly newbies and those (re-)discovering their childhood memories and culinary heritage. Indeed, there’s a strong religious and rich cultural background to the tradition, which is all the more important as we remember the mass murder and destruction of European Jewry during World War Two. Keep in mind how this little Viennese historical overview of ours ends: Those few but lively challah bakers still left in the city of Vienna today are highly valued remnants of what used to be Europe’s third-largest Jewish community!
Recipe: Classic Eggy Yeast Challah
Political and religious divides tend to get blurred when it comes to challah. Both secular and religious crowds have always been attracted by spots like the famous Maphiat Lender (מאפית לנדנר) in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, or the fabulous Viznitz challah bakery (מאפיית ויז’ניץ) — worth every detour — in Tel Aviv’s suburb Bnei Brak. These places are all about classic and traditional challah, since no one flies home for the holidays eager to be the guinea pig for an updated recipe. But if you insist on innovation, you should definitely test out challah made by someone like Uri Scheft, the Denmark-bred and Lenôtre in Paris graduated cosmopolitan. His boutique bakery Lechamim has branches in Tel Aviv and even Manhattan. He also offers the classic challah he learned to love as a child.
A quick and easy recipe
In 2016, Uri Scheft shared this recipe in his book Breaking Breads. For the occasion, I retrofitted my classic technique, adapted and annotated Scheft’s recipe, and tested it countless times. The minimalist technique is a mixture of that of my wife’s and all the tricks and secrets we ever learned from moms, grandma’s, aunts and uncles of friends and friends of friends, to the Chernobyler rebbetzin’s and her mother’s and obviously all the great names from Claudia Roden and Joan Nathan, over Mark Bittman, Mollie Katzen back to Uri Scheft.
My wife makes a terrific whole grain spelt water challah she perfected together with her friend Blimi Spitzer a decade ago — more on that recipe another time. But for the moment, I want to stick with an ultra-classic though very simple recipe. Not to make this quick and easy recipe here for a delicious and very traditional braided eggy Jewish yeast challah simply is a sin.
Use a scale!
Many home cooks I know who make challah weekly for decades don’t really measure anything. They just take a bit of this and a pinch of that. Sometimes it comes out a bit stickier…so what? It’ll turn out fine anyway, believe you me! Because the most important part of challah making is the technique, the overall procedure. Here I’ve done my best to describe this foolproof process, which I tested for perfect results with absolute beginners. Do use a scale! And the metric system! It makes baking so much easier — and professional.
Double the batch and freeze it
I always make a double batch, as my stand mixer can take it in one go. And it’s worth noting that challah freezes perfectly. To defrost, simply put in a microwave on high for 30 seconds, then turn the loaf and continue on high for another 30 seconds until the center of the loaf is defrosted — use an instant read thermometer! Then place the loaf into a hot oven (345°-435°F/175-225°C) for a couple of minutes to crisp up the loaf quickly, and let cool on a rack. Some people even freeze sliced challah and then toast individual slices to defrost and toast them at the same time. You just have to add a bit of extra time to the regular toasting time to allow for the defrosting.
Classic challah (yields 2 loaves or 12 large rolls):
400g (1 2/3 cups) warm water
15g (1 tablespoon and 1 3/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
or 40g (3 Tablespoons and 2 teaspoons) fresh yeast
114g (2 large) eggs at room temperature
75g (5 tablespoons or 1/3 cup) canola or sunflower oil
100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
20g (1 1/3 tablespoon) fine salt (iodine free to avoid bitter taste)
1kg (7 cups) sifted all-purpose wheat flour (In Austria take “glatt Typ 700” / In Israel קמח לבן or קמח רב תכליתי)
more flour for shaping (optional)
raisins (optional for Rosh Hashanah)
1 large egg at room temperature
1 tablespoon water
pinch of fine salt (iodine free to avoid bitter taste)
80g (2/3 cups) poppy seeds and/or sesame seeds
- Read through this recipe befor you start. Do not skip a step!
- Heat the oven to 85-95°F/30-35°C.
- Mix cool room temperature water with yeast.
- Mix in the rest of the liquid ingredients and the sugar.
- Sift the flour with a sifter if you didn’t do it yet. (Weigh the flour as amounts indicated often include the weight of the packaging!)
- Preferably use the dough hook of a stand mixer on low speed to add the flour
- Immediately drizzle in salt.
- Continue to combine everything for 2 to 3 minutes on low speed (don’t worry if it’s a little bit sticky).
- On medium speed, knead the dough for no more than 5 minutes.
- Take out of the mixing bowl onto a working surface. Again, don’t worry if the dough is a bit sticky and firm. If necessary, use a dough scraper to get the dough from the work surface.
- Stretch and fold the dough over (see illustration above). Use your hands to push and tear the ball of dough, then fold it over itself and give the dough a quarter turn. Stretch fold and turn again for a couple of minutes if you can.
- Make a ball out of the dough and put it back into the bowl.
- Turn off the oven and place the bowl into it.
- Let rise for 50 minutes, or until it has nearly doubled in size (You should continue to wait and probably raise the temperature of the oven to 105°F/40°C — or even 113°F/45°C — if you see that the dough still doesn’t rise enough after all that time).
- Divide the dough into as many balls as strands needed to braid (one for a spiral, six or four strands).
- With a rolling pin, flatten a ball of dough. (If using raisins, scatter them on top of the piece of dough). Roll up the dough onto itself, then shape it into a strand which is slightly tapered at the ends.
- Braid the challah (see illustration for six or four strands) and place on a baking sheet lined with a parchment paper. (For optimum results, use a perforated baking sheet or, at least, a perforated baking matt.)
- Let the braided loaves rise in the warm oven for another 45 minutes, or until they have about doubled in size again. To see if the dough has risen enough, press on it lightly with your finger. If the hole slowly fills in by no more than half, the dough is ready. If on the other hand, the hole fills in completely and quickly, the dough needs more time. If you press on it and the dough deflates, you have over-proofed it. (To remedy this, go back to step 14.)
- Take the loaves from the oven and place in a draft-free free spot. Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C (regular convection setting).
- Prepare the egg wash by mixing everything together in a small bowl with a fork so as to create as few air bubbles as possible. Very gently brush the egg wash onto the loaves.
- Sprinkle with sesame and/or poppy seeds. (If using both, start with sesame.)
- Bake the loaves on the middle rack or if they don’t fit, divide onto two racks. After 15 minutes, change the position of the baking sheets so the bottom one is on top, and the top one is on the bottom. Continue to bake for another 10 minutes or until golden brown (or slightly burnt). Since baking times will vary depending on the size of the loaves, it’s best to use an instant-read thermometer: Remove the loaves from the oven when their internal temperature is just above 195°F/90°C.
- Take them off the baking sheet and let them cool completely on a rack.