Taking the challah challenge

Challah? Me, a nice Irish-Catholic girl from Boston—what do I know about challah?

It was Halley again. “Let’s put up some recipes for the Jewish high holidays. We need a new section on the recipe site. What should we put in there?

“Cheesecake,” said Susan. “And honey cake. And I have this wicked good potato crust pie…”

Halley looked at me. I thought quickly.  What do I know about Jewish cooking? Well, when I was a kid we ate at a deli called Jack and Marion’s. It was a huge, noisy place, and smelled like fried potatoes and sour pickles. It also had the biggest menu—I mean, physically big—that I’d ever seen; it was probably 2 feet tall.

But what was on that menu? I racked my brain, looking for Jewish-high-holiday recipe inspiration. All I remember is bagels and cream cheese, since that was all I was brave enough to try. My parents ate pastrami. Sometimes a Reuben—ewww, sauerkraut! Icky pink salad dressing! Nothing really bakeable came to mind.

“P.J.?” Halley inquired. “What do you think?”

Um um um…. “How about challah?” I blurted out, offering the first Jewish baked good that came to mind.  Challah—I know, it’s a braid. It’s shiny and very yellow.

“Great! How about apple challah? It sounds SO good. Or raisin challah. Oh, this’ll be good!” Halley smiled, Susan smiled. I smiled… tentatively.

Luckily, I’ve actually made challah before—once. The recipe came from one of my very best friends in the world, Lora Brody, whose written the funniest food books ever, including Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, and Indulgences. Lora got the recipe from her mother, Millie Apter. So I figure, this is the real deal.

I look up Millie’s challah recipe, and remember—oh yeah, whole wheat pastry flour. Variation on the real deal.  How will that go over for the Jewish high holidays? Aren’t they, like, all about tradition? Surely I can take Millie’s recipe and make it traditional, I thought. I’ll switch it to all-purpose flour. And then make it into apple challah. And raisin challah.

After a few false starts—including a taste test by a visiting crew of Israeli videographers who pronounced my efforts “too moist; should be drier and stringier”—I came up with three challah recipes that everyone endorsed, including Andrea, my fellow test baker who knows the intricacies of kosher cooking; and fellow Web team members Janet and Jim, both of whom know Jewish cooking inside and out.

And Halley, who started all of this in the first place.

Once again, Halley, you nudged me to go somewhere I wouldn’t have gone. You’ve successfully broadened my Jewish baking horizons beyond bagels and cream cheese.

Just don’t ask me to make a flourless Passover cake again.

Happy Rosh Hashanah, everyone. Let’s bake some apple challah.

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Let’s start by putting the dough ingredients into a mixer bowl.  Oil and eggs, rather than butter, give this loaf its tender texture.

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Mix with the flat beater till everything comes together…

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…then knead for about 7 minutes, till soft and elastic. The surface of the dough may look a bit rough; that’s OK.

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Or the dough may leave a film around the side of the bowl. That’s OK, too.

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Place in the rising container of your choice, cover…

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And let rise till doubled. This should take about 2 hours, more or less.

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Next, prepare apples by coring, cutting into chunks, and tossing in cinnamon and sugar. No need to peel them.

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Flatten the dough into a rectangle about the size of a standard sheet of paper, and pile half the apples in a strip that’s just a bit off-center.

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Fold one edge of the dough over the apples.

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Then pile the rest of the apples atop the folded-over dough.

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Fold the other edge of the dough over  the apples. You’ve now made a letter fold. Pinch the edges closed. Though, with what comes next, you’ll wonder why you bothered!

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This begins to get messy. Don’t stress; it’s supposed to be rather haphazard. Don’t be afraid to lose control of this apple-stuffed dough; it’ll all work out in the end, like life usually does. Cut the dough in half crosswise.

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Then cut it in half lengthwise.

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Cut each lengthwise piece into 8 pieces. The entire piece of dough should be cut into 16 pieces.

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Pick the pieces up, and put them in a lightly greased 9” round cake pan. The dough will be slippery; the apples will slide out. No worries—just tuck any errants apple chunks in among the dough crevices.

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Ah, here we are. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Cover the pan, and let the dough rise for about an hour.

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When nicely risen, the dough will just crest the rim of your pan, if your pan is 2” deep (as it should be). If you have a shallower pan, you might consider using a springform pan. Or a 10” round cake pan. Or a 9” square pan.

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Just before putting the challah into the oven, brush it with egg wash made from a whole egg and water. Sprinkle with coarse white sugar, if desired. Some folks like this bread with sugar; some prefer drizzling honey over it once it’s done.

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Put the challah in the preheated oven, on a lower shelf. The top browns very deeply, and if it’s too close to the oven’s upper element, it’ll char.

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Bake the challah for about 55 minutes, till it’s light golden brown all over, and a darker brown—even black—in some spots.

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Here’s a challah sprinkled with coarse sugar.

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Very nice texture, huh? See what those Israeli videographers mean by “stringy”? That’s a good thing. This bread is nicely moist; the apples provide both flavor, and a nice variation in texture. All in all—a good loaf. To serve, cut in slices, and drizzle with honey.

Read, review, and rate (please!) our recipes for  Apple Challah, Raisin Challah, and Classic Challah.  And for more tasty treats, check out all of our Jewish Holiday recipes.

Buy vs. Bake:

Buy: Macrina Bakery, Seattle: Plain Challah, 23¢/ounce

Bake at home: Apple Challah, 7¢/ounce

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Ally

    What did I do wrong? Challah was not even browned after 55 minutes at 325. It took almost two hours to bake through. I did refrigerate the dough over night after the first rise.
    Allyn

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sounds like your oven may be running a bit on the cold side. Try 350 next time and I would also suggest getting an oven thermometer to see how off it is. Jon@KAF

  2. Donna

    I am bringing the Harvest Apple Challah to a “break the fast” and need to make it in advance (the day before). Is it OK to wrap it and put the pan in freezer after assembling? How long after removing it from the freezer before it can be baked? Do I defrost in the refrigerator first?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Donna, it might be less dicey to simply bake the day before then, just before going to your “break the fast,” wrap it in foil and reheat in a 350°F oven for 25 minutes or so, to refresh it. Or you could parbake it – bake it, but don’t let it become fully browned – the day before, then finish baking it the next day. Good luck – I’m sure it’ll come out fine. PJH

  3. Robin Birnbaum

    PJ- I teach a challah baking class at my synagogue each year and this is the recipe I use year in and year out. It is always a success and gives my students the confidence to go on to other recipes and techniques. I personally have grown so much as a baker having started baking bread using your site. Love everything KAF!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Robin, thank you so much for sharing here. We’re pleased that you’re “paying it forward” by teaching your students to bake challah. Hopefully some of them, in turn, will teach others, and keep this great tradition going. We’re so glad we could help you become a bread baker – enjoy! PJH

  4. Barb Hutchins

    Hi, I know honey is tradional in Jewish households, but I don’t care for it – any reason pure maple syrup wouldn’t work as well?

    Reply
  5. Mrs.Mike

    I am hunting for yummy recipes to feed my lactose and gluten intolerant friend. This passes the lactose piece, could I make it with “gluten-free” flour?
    We haven’t tested this recipe with gluten free flour. You may want to check out our tips at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/glutenfree before setting out to make the Challah as a GF recipe. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  6. bstrnad

    I made this recipe for a pot luck that had an apple theme and it looked and tasted wonderful. I used only 8 pieces of dough instead of the recommended 16 and baked it in an angle food cake pan. It looked lovely when it came out of the pan. I didn’t have time to wait on all the risings as instructed in the recipe so I made the dough the night before. Turned my oven onto warm and let it heat up. I mixed the dough and when the oven reached warm I turned it off. After mixing the dough I popped the bowl into the oven and left it there over night. The next morning I got up early mixed my apples into the dough and made the loaf as instructed. I let it rise for about an hour and a half. Then baked it. By noon I had a lovely bread to take with me. I often wonder why people continue to believe that baking takes too much time. All that rising time gives me a chance to do other things.

    When I mixed my dough it was very hard. I don’t have a mixer and so do all the kneading by hand and suspect that I may not be kneading it long enough. But it was not at all soft and supple as shown in the pictures. The long rising time I gave it may have taken care of any of the problems I might have had with the dough. All-in-all this recipe is another winner.

    Reply
  7. soccerfreak07843

    This was fabulous. I couldn’t stop eating it. I used twice the cinnamon and sugar, and it was perfect. I loved the dough recipe so much, I’m trying to find other ways to use it.

    You’re right, this is a lovely dough for any kind of sweet breads – cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, etc. Glad you like it! PJH

    Reply
  8. Harvey S. Cohen

    I make an excellent classic 6-strand challah, but I prefer to use butter instead of oil unless I really need to keep it parve (kosher term for non-dairy non-meat). I’ve made this apple challah several times, and it’s always been wonderful (and really easy!), but I’ve always used safflower oil. Any reason not to use butter?
    Last time I made the apple challah, I sprinkled heavily with turbinado (not white) sugar. I think the color looks better, and the taste was great.

    The oil and egg combination makes a more tender texture for this challah recipe. Using butter will give great flavor, but may change the texture. Let us know your results if you decide to try it! Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  9. YoSandy

    Not reall Challah………………..
    Looks really, really good but it’s not Challah. Challah is braided and your recipe is not. While there is no law that Challah is braided take a look anyplace in the internet and there are a couple of reasons this is so. I really appreciate all of the comments on this bread and I will make it tomorrow as it sounds great but I really wouldn’t call it “Challah”.

    I have to disagree here – challah isn’t always braided, in fact – it’s sometimes made into a spiral, to represent the continuity of life. Halley, our Web director, is Jewish, and she backs me up on this. And yes, however it’s shaped – it’s very tasty! PJH

    Reply

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