A friend of mine is catering a 150-guest wedding reception in June and has asked me to make the bread. It’s a paying gig, which is cool, but the primary reason I’m doing it is because it sounds like fun to make a brigade of baguettes and a mess of challah.* I did a test run this weekend to see how sour the bread would turn out using approximately the same schedule of starter-refreshing, rising, and baking that I had worked out for the weekend of the wedding—my sourdough starter is one of the main reasons my friend asked me to handle the bread, but she didn’t necessarily want a pronounced sourdough flavor. As I’ve mentioned before, sourdough starters don’t actually make sour-tasting bread unless you want them to. However, especially when it’s warm and humid out, the yeast activity speeds up, so a baking timetable that wouldn’t produce any discernable tang in February might produce something quite sour in June.
There were some other things I needed to figure out too—making sure my estimates for how many slices we’d get out of each loaf were correct, figuring out what shape of challah would work best for pulled pork sandwiches. Oh, and learning how to make challah in the first place before attempting to manufacture it in quantities better measured by the gallon than by the cup. You know, minor details.
I was only planning on auditioning two shapes: a traditional six-stranded braid and a loaf baked in a standard bread pan. But I had a little extra dough because the pan won’t quite hold as much as a recipe for a braid calls for (well, technically it would, but the dough would rise over the edge, creating the mushroom shape characteristic of many commercial loaves, which I didn’t want), so I turned 1/4 of one batch into three knots about the size of hamburger buns. And the knots won. The braid might be prettier, even if it’s imperfect, but it’s way less impressive once it’s sliced. Plus, even a perfect braid wouldn’t produce perfectly consistent slices. However, the main reason the knots seem like they will work better is that challah is so soft and absorbent that with a warm, moist sandwich filling like pulled pork, it might get soggy and start to fall apart. At home or even at a restaurant, that might be fine—preferable, even, like the classic spongy white bread you get at Texas bbq joints. However, a big, formal event where the sandwiches might take a while to get from the kitchen to the table and the table to the guest seems to call for a little more structural integrity.
It struck me as I was looking up challah recipes that traditional Jewish breads seem to be all about extremes. Matza or matzoh is like the ur-bread, or bread pared down to its most basic form: grain ground in to a flour moistened and then heated until the starch sets. No leavening, by definition; no fat, by tradition. You can even make it without salt, although that would taste horrible. The bagel is the chewiest roll possible—the shape provides the maximum possible surface area for a non-flat bread and boiling causes the starch on the outside to gelatinize more than just baking, which is what makes them harder, shinier, and chewier than other breads. Then there’s challah, which is so rich with egg and fat and sugar that it’s about as close to pastry as a yeast bread can be.
Traditionally, challah is parve—meaning it doesn’t contain milk or butter. However, since we’re using it as a vehicle for pork, trying to accommodate guests with religious or ethical objections to animal products is already moot (there will be plenty of other options for them) so I decided to use butter instead of oil because I prefer the flavor. That makes the recipe a little more like brioche, but I’m still calling it challah because it doesn’t contain quite as much fat. If you imagine a continuum between croissant (lots of fat, very little water, not crusty) and baguette (no fat, lots of water, very crusty), brioche is nearly touching croissant and challah is one or two steps closer to baguette. However, like brioche, challah is incredibly soft and spongy—almost cake-like. They resemble genoise in their ability to take on additional moisture. That’s one of the reasons they’re often used for french toast and bread pudding–type applications—not only are they already eggy and rich, but they absorb much more batter than even the stalest baguette.
Although this recipe does call for a little more sugar than most yeast breads, it’s not too sweet to use as an accompaniment to savory dishes. It would be perfect for mopping up runny egg yolks, stews, or gravies. But it’s also rich, sweet, and flavorful enough to enjoy plain. It’s a celebration kind of bread, and it’s easy to see why Jews in southern Germany adopted it and incorporated it into their religious traditions.
*As far as I know, there are no official terms of bread venery, although perhaps there should be, in which case I’m sure we can come up with better ones—A snobbery of baguettes? A gordian of challah?
You can shape the dough however you want, but there’s a reason most people associate “challah” with braided loaves. The word “challah” originally referred to the portion of dough that was given to the temple, like the Catholic tithe. Kosher practice still requires that a small portion of the dough be removed before baking, although now instead of hunting down a Rabbi to feed it to, people generally just burn it and say a blessing. The word came to refer to “special” bread in general, defined in contrast to the Hebrew word lechem, which refers to everyday bread (according to Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America via food timeline). Sometime after the middle ages, when Jews in the region that’s now southern Germany and Austria adopted the local tradition of eating decorative, braided breads called “berches” with the Sunday meal for Shabbat, the word came to refer primarily to only that one kind of “special” bread, at least for most European Jews and the English-speaking world (according to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York via MyJewishLearning).
There are dozens of styles of challah braiding—some people just make a single three-stranded braid. I found a diagram for a four-stranded braid, and at least one attempt to make one that didn’t quite work out. It also seems pretty common to make two braids—one larger and one smaller and set the smaller loaf on top of the bigger one to give it more height (if you want to try that, just divide the dough into 4 equal parts, use one for each strand of the large braid and divide one into 3 parts for the smaller braid). Sometimes the braid is twisted into a round or braided in a circle from the middle. Or made into a crazy six-legged braid beast.
The stacked braids seem designed to mimic the six-stranded braid, but it turns out that making a six-stranded braid isn’t really that much more difficult than making a three-stranded braid. Instead of alternating pulling the outside strands into the middle, you alternate between pulling the second-to-outside strand to the far outside and then the far outside strand to the middle. Video here. If you number the strands 1-6 from right to left here’s one full cycle (I didn’t use letters like the diagram because that’s a different method so what you have below are two options):
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
Step 1: Pull the right strands to the left/middle
Pull strand 5 to the far left:
5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 6
Pull strand 6 to the middle:
5 – 1 – 2 – 6 – 3 – 4
Step 2: Pull the left strands to the right/middle
Pull strand 1 to the far right:
5 – 2 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 1
Pull strand 5 to the middle:
2 – 6 – 5 – 3 – 4 – 1
Presumably you could do the same thing to any kind of dough you can shape into ropes. But here’s one recipe that definitely works, with a note on how to adapt it for commercial yeast if you don’t have an active starter:
Recipe: Sourdough-risen Challah (adapted from Sourdough Home)
Makes 1 large braid, or 12 burger bun-sized knots (~90 g dough), or 20-24 smaller “slider” sized knots (45-55g dough), or 1 standard loaf + 3 burger/5-6 slider knots, or 2 smaller braids or freeform loaves
1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration, refreshed)*
1/2 cup water
3 2/3 cups flour (I used bread flour; the amount will depend a bit on your starter and the humidity)
2 t. salt
1/4 cup sugar or 3 T. honey
1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
1 egg and 2 yolks, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg to coat the crust
optional: 1/2 cup raisins for the dough and/or 2 T. sesame and/or poppy seeds to coat
*If you want to substitute commercial yeast for the sourdough starter, increase the water to 1 cup and increase flour to 4 1/3 cups and add 1 package of regular or fast-rising active dry yeast. If the resulting dough is dry and difficult to knead, add more water; if it’s too sticky to knead, add more flour. Baking is not a science.
1. Combine everything but ~1 cup of flour and the extra egg and optional seed toppings in a large bowl. Stir well to combine—it should be thick and sticky.
2. Gradually add just as much of the remaining cup of flour as necessary to create a dough that sticks to itself more than it sticks to you.
3. Scrape the dough onto a lightly-floured surface and knead ~15 minutes or until very smooth. Sometimes I let a dough rest on the kneading surface under the upturned bowl for 10-15 minutes while I go do something else to give the flour a chance to absorb the moisture, which makes it a little less sticky and easier to work with.
4. Cover and allow to rise until tripled in volume (probably a minimum of 4 hours, or up to 18-20, depending on your sourdough starter, the ambient temperature, and how sour you want it to be. I left it overnight for 8 hrs; it was probably ready after 5-6 hours).
5. Shape as desired, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and let rise an additional 2-4 hours or until doubled in volume. If you want to make something with even ropes like braids or knots, you might want to weigh the dough and then use the scale to divide the dough into equal portions. Roll each portion out with a rolling pin or empty wine bottle and then roll the flat piece up lengthwise using the palms of your hands (this technique is also demonstrated in the six strand braid video linked above).
6. Preheat the oven to 350 F a half an hour before you want to bake. Beat the last egg with 1 T. water and brush the surface of the dough with the mixture—for optimal color, do this twice: once when you start preheating the oven and once just before putting it in the oven.
7. Slash if making a slash-able style of bread and bake for 40-45 min (braid), 35-40 min (loaf), or 20-30 min (knots) or until the top is a deep golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.