Although I was raised a god-fearing, bible-thumping Southern Baptist, I have long been mistaken for various ethnicities that would suggest otherwise. This has had subtle influence over my culinary curiosities of all traditions and I've been blessed to share with several Jewish families delicious, food-laden holidays. Challah is one such example and I have since converted several recipes using sourdough as leavening. Although it has been decades since I've stepped foot into any worship environment other than my garden, the California redwoods, or the deep blue ocean, I'd say working with this soft and sensual dough is a pretty amazing way to renew the spirit.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and as one of the holiest days of the year, is a time of both reflection and looking forward. It is also an excellent opportunity as the temperatures cool to begin autumn baking again. Sourdough helps improve the texture and keeping quality of Challah, a bread that for me has always grown stale rather quickly. The trick is adding enough leaven that the dough will rise sufficiently without becoming too acidic. Using young leaven (ripe after 6 hours) and sometimes adding a very simple filling of tahini, sugar, and spices makes this recipe a delightful holiday bake. The options for fillings are endless (fig confiture or chopped chocolate anyone?!) but this one is richly satisfying and when made into mini buns, pretty endearing.
Be warned, this recipe takes some time...so if you are making for Shabbat, begin early in the morning. It will be worth it though, as about 8 hours later your kitchen will be enveloped in the most delicious aroma come sundown. You may of course shape and proof in the refrigerator overnight before baking but I find this makes the acidity of the crumb overpower the subtle sweetness I associate with Challah.
Yield: two medium loaves, or 26 filled buns
275 g 100% hydration sourdough starter, refreshed
165 g water
80 g mild honey
40 g mild vegetable oil
2 large eggs + 3 yolks
15 g sea salt
375 g all-purpose flour
375 g bread flour
1 egg yolk
Dash of water
1 teaspoon honey
sesame, poppy, or nigella seeds and/or coarse sugar for garnish (optional)
TAHINI FILLING (optional):
1 cup tahini
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
pinch of sea salt
Whisk together the starter, water, honey, oil, eggs, and salt until a thin slurry forms. Slowly incorporate the flour with your hands until a sticky, shaggy mass forms and all of the flour is hydrated.
Remove from the bowl and knead on a clean surface for about 5 minutes to develop dough strength. Clean the bowl and lightly oil before transferring the dough back into the bowl. Cover with plastic and allow to proof in cool location for about 6 hours or until the dough has just doubled in size.
There are several options, including using the tahini to make two medium filled loaves, dividing into two baker's dozen filled buns, or not using the filling at all and making a more traditional braided loaf. You can also go the really easy route and simply shape them into small balls and place them in a baking tin to make plain rolls, topping with seeds for decoration. Really, they're all delicious!
- Rosh Hashanah often uses round symbols to refer to the cyclical nature of the year and braiding to harness our creative power. To do a four strand round Challah, watch this awesome video or:
Divide the dough into four equal parts (8 total for two loaves) and roll with your hands on a lightly floured surface into strands about 14" long. Create a hashtag weave, alternating the over-under positioning between two sets of parallel strands. Take the strand that is underneath and place over the strand that is nearest to it. Working in the reverse direction, repeat the same. Continue until you have used up the dough. Pinch together the ends and tuck under the loaf. Repeat with the remaining four strands for the second loaf and proof for one hour.
- To do a six braid loaf:
Divide the dough into six equal parts (12 total for two loaves) and roll with your hands on a lightly floured surface into strands about 14” long. Place six strands parallel to each other and pinch the top ends together. Move the outside right strand left over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2 strands. Move the second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with what is now the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided, pinching the ends together and gently tucking under. Repeat with the remaining 6 strands to complete the second loaf. Cover with a towel and plastic and proof for 1 hour before applying the egg wash and topping if desired.
- For a tahini-filled braided loaf:
Divide the strands into six equal balls (12 total for two loaves). Using a rolling pin, roll each piece into circles on a lightly floured surface about 1/8" thick. Fill each circle with an even coating of tahini to about 1/2" from the edge. Roll into long cylinders, pinching the seam and the ends closed. Continue rolling until each strand is about 14-15" long.
- For filled rolls:
Divide the dough into 26 equal parts and shape into rough balls. Using a rolling pin, roll into flat circles on a lightly floured surface about 1/8" thick and around 7" diameter. Place just under a tablespoon of tahini filling onto each circle, spreading to about 1/2" from the edge. Roll the circles into long coils, sealing the seam and pinching the ends closed. Roll into spirals, tucking the end under. Place on a lined baking sheet, press the tops firmly, and cover with a towel and then plastic. Allow to proof for another 1 to 1.5 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the ingredients for the egg wash and apply evenly with a brush over the shaped and proved dough, sprinkling seeds or coarse sugar if desired. Bake on the middle rack without steam for 30-40 minutes (depending on shape and size of the loaves). When the crust is a deep golden brown, remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before slicing.
Notes: As with any bread recipe, there are a myriad of factors that can contribute to successful loaves. Most of this is due to an ability to practice, observe, repeat, and tweak. A few bumps that I have run into include loaves that are a bit too sour (overproved or using overly ripe starter), loaves that tear apart upon baking (underproved), and loaves that are gummy in the middle (underbaked or baked at too high a temperature). Be patient with yourself, make note of your relative temperature and humidity, and adjust accordingly allowing more time for proofing if your house is drafty and less time if it is a warm, late season day.