joan nathan's challah
Sometimes, it takes me years to find and tweak my favorite version of a recipe. Other times, I stumble on it right away and never let it go. This is one of those times. Joan Nathan’s favorite challah recipe was originally published in The New York Times in 2001. It has a bit of a cult following, and for good reason. First, it’s infallible. While in general, baking challah is actually much easier than it looks (braiding is the hardest part), this recipe in particular is more or less indestructible. I’ve made it across continents, in half-working ovens, with questionable ingredients, and somehow it always manages to come out perfectly, with a magically tender, brioche-like interior and a flaky, golden crust. This is because Joan—an expert on Jewish cooking—developed the recipe using the tips and secrets of challah bakers everywhere, including a few particularly transformative techniques: 1) Three rises yields a better loaf. Moreover, 2) if one of those rises takes place slowly in the refrigerator, the challah will be super brioche-y. And 3) brushing the dough with egg wash—not once but twice—makes for an ultra glossy loaf.
Joan Nathan’s Challah
Barely adapted from The New York Times.
The original recipe calls for vegetable oil, but I prefer the taste of olive oil. I’ve also included weight measurements for the flour and sugar. I’m partial to a 4-braided weave; it’s both easy and pretty. I’ve included directions for it below, but I also recommend watching this brief video. Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the refrigerator for a few hours (or even overnight), for a more brioche-like texture. Bring the dough back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.
Makes 2 loaves.
1 1/2 tablespoons (from about 1 1/2 to 2 packages) active dry yeast
1/2 cup (99 grams) plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for greasing bowl
5 large eggs, divided
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 ½ cups (1040 to 1105 grams) all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water; set aside for a few minutes until foamy. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful not to overmix.)
FIRST RISE: Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. (Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150°F then turned off.)
SECOND RISE: Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
To weave a 4-braided round loaf, take half the dough and divide it into 4 equal balls. Use your hands to roll out each ball into a strand about 18 inches long. Arrange the 4 ropes into a tic-tac-toe board (#), with the first horizontal strand over then under the vertical ones and the second horizontal strand under then over them (a.k.a. a weave). Keep the center of the board as tight as possible. Pick any rope that comes from under the center and jump it over its neighbor to the right. Continue clockwise with the rest of the “under ropes.” Then switch directions counterclockwise, again jumping the under ropes over their neighbors, but this time to the left. Continue until you run out of rope. Tuck the remaining strands under the dough to form a round.
THIRD RISE: Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Let rise another hour. (Or, at this point—between the second and third rise—you can freeze the dough instead. Remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.)
To bake, preheat oven to 375°F and brush loaves with another coat of egg wash. Bake in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Do not overbake! Cool loaves on a rack. Eat with lots of good butter and salt.
* See note in the header of recipe for slowing down any of the rises in the refrigerator.