Challah

Last weekend I baked bread for the first time; I don’t know how I have gone 40 years without doing so – it is so much fun! Given my inexperience, I probably should have chosen an easy bread to start with, but no, I decided to choose a pretty one instead 🙂 I found a recipe for a lovely looking plaited loaf on page 416 of Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook. The bread is called Challah, and it is an important bread in Jewish cuisine. It is often eaten on Shabbat (Friday evening to Saturday evening), which is Judaism’s day of rest, so I guess it was appropriate that I baked it on a Saturday! During Shabbat, two Challah loaves feature as part of three special meals, and a blessing is recited over the bread during two of these meals. As I’m not Jewish, there were no blessings involved, but it was a small miracle that my loaves turned out as well as they did, and I was naturally very grateful for that!

Making the Bread

Step 1: Gather the ingredients

First I gathered together all of the ingredients for making the bread:

  • 500 g strong white flour (plus extra for dusting)
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 x 7 g sachet fast-action dried yeast
  • 250 ml lukewarm water
  • 2 large eggs (beaten)
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil (plus extra for greasing)

Just a few notes on some of the ingredients for future reference; I used Allinson’s strong white bread flour, M&S table salt and Hovis fast action bread yeast. I spent quite some time researching which type of salt to use, as the recipe didn’t specify this. I learnt that when baking bread, it’s best to use non-iodised salt, such as sea salt, as iodine can give the bread an unpleasant flavour. It’s also best to use fine salt as opposed to coarse, as it’s easier to measure. Whilst fine sea salt would have been the best option, I only had coarse sea salt so I decided to use the table salt I had which didn’t list iodine as an ingredient (and hoped for the best).

Challah Ingredients

Step 2: Make dough

I had a minor dilemma about whether I should sift the flour or not; Mary Berry says to do so, but other sources say not to as the point of sifting flour is to add air to a cake mixture, and as you are making bread, you are only going to knock the air out later on when kneading / punching down etc. Apparently bread gets its lightness from rising with yeast or soda, so I decided not to sift the flour and hoped I wouldn’t regret this later on… So, I put the flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast into a bowl and stirred them all together. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the yeast was brown! And it smelt. Bad. Just like smelly feet!

Flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast

Then, using a wooden spoon, I made a well in the middle:

Making a well in the middle of the dry ingredients

The next stage is to combine the water, eggs and sunflower oil and pour it into the well. The important thing here is to use lukewarm water – water that is warm enough to activate the yeast but not so hot that it will kill it. Lukewarm generally means between 36.5 to 40.5 degrees Celsius, or if you run water on your wrist and it feels warmer than your body temperature, but not too hot, then that should be about right. Will got me a sugar thermometer for my birthday recently, so whilst this wasn’t 100% necessary, I thought it was a good excuse to test it out, by warming the water to 40 degrees Celsius. I had to add more water than the 250 ml I had already measured, in order for it to register on the thermometer. After the water had been heated, I measured 250 ml again in a jug so I had the right amount.

Using my new thermometer!

Next I combined the water, eggs and sunflower oil in a bowl, transferred it to a jug and then poured most of it into the well. Mary Berry says that the absorbency of flour can vary, so the amount of liquid given in a recipe can only be a guide. As you can see below, the liquid had already overflowed my well, so it was at that point that I decided to leave 100 ml of the liquid in the jug:

Pouring water, beaten eggs and sunflower oil into the well

I mixed the ingredients together with my hands, trying to add the flour in stages – but in reality, it became quite messy and I just did my best to combine it in any way possible lol. I mixed the ingredients until I had what I thought was a soft, sticky dough. I decided that the dough was soft enough, so I didn’t add the 100 ml of liquid that I had left out earlier:

Soft, sticky dough

Step 3: Knead dough

Next, I lightly floured the work surface and kneaded the dough until it was firm and elastic. I was surprised that I didn’t need to use a scraper to scrape my dough out of the bowl, or whilst manipulating it on the work surface. I flattened the dough using my fists, until I was able to fold it over. Then I used the heel of my hand (with the other hand clasped to it) to push down into the dough, pushing away from your body. Then I turned the dough, lightly refloured the surface and started kneading again. At first I started to sprinkle a little flour onto the dough as well, but I stopped after doing this a few times as the dough didn’t seem to need it. I kneaded the dough for 10 minutes (well, I did 5 minutes and Will did 5 – he was desperate to have a go!). I wasn’t sure how long to knead the dough, so I just did the maximum time suggested by Mary Berry.

Kneading the dough

Then I shaped the dough into a round ball; I wasn’t very happy with the dough as it seemed dry and cracked in places (it reminded me of my unsuccessful sweet shortcrust pastry attempts! If you fancy a good laugh – here’s the link to my first go at making a tart). Maybe I had left out too much of the liquid when forming the dough; but I thought I was doing the right thing as I stopped adding liquid when all the flour had been combined. I didn’t want to ruin the dough by making it too wet, especially as I had used large eggs (the recipe didn’t specify which size egg), so I had erred on the side of caution.

Dough shaped into a round ball

Step 4: Leave dough to rise

Using kitchen paper, I lightly oiled a bowl with sunflower oil and placed the dough into it. Then, using sunflower oil again, I oiled some cling film and covered the bowl with it. The next step is to leave the dough “to rise in a warm place for 1 – 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size”. I left the dough to rise on my bedside table, as it was the warmest place in our flat; I closed the bedroom window and door and left it there to do its thing. It was a hot day, so we had all the windows open in the kitchen and lounge. I decided to leave it for one hour initially, and then check in on it at the end (in reality, I kept checking in on it about every 10 minutes because I was excited haha). I was quite worried that the dough would not rise given how dry it was, but I hadn’t lost hope!

Dough left to rise

So, after one hour, my dough had definitely risen – hoorah! I thought that it had doubled in size, so I didn’t think that it needed to be left for an extra half an hour. It was quite a warm day (21 degrees Celsius), so maybe that had helped too:

Dough after first rise

On taking the cling film off, I realised that I hadn’t turned the dough in the oil-greased bowl before leaving it to rise – so panicking mildly, I rolled it around the bowl before taking it out (a touch last minute, but better late than never…).

Step 5: Knock back and knead dough

Next, I lightly floured the work surface, turned out the dough and knocked it back with my fists – this was great fun! I can highly recommend punching dough for stress relief – think of someone or something really annoying and just go for it. On a more serious note, the purpose of knocking back the dough is to get rid of the gases that formed during the first rise, and to make sure that the yeast is in contact with its food source (sugar), so it can do its thing and rise again:

Knocking back the dough

Next, you are supposed to knead the dough for 2 – 3 minutes “until smooth and elastic”. My dough was dry to handle and because of this, I was unable to achieve a nice smooth consistency. I kneaded it for 3 minutes into a rectangular shape (I thought this shape would be easier to divide later). The dough was elastic, but I would say far too dry. You can see the cracks below:

Kneaded Dough

Step 6: Shape dough

The next step is to shape the dough. I cut the dough into two pieces (lengthways down the middle of the rectangle) in order to make the two loaves. Then I cut each piece of dough into three pieces, in order to make the three strands of the plait. Cutting three even-sized strands was difficult, and I don’t think I managed this totally successfully:

Dough divided into pieces

I lightly oiled a baking tray with sunflower oil, in preparation for putting the loaves on it. Returning to the shaping of the dough, I took each piece of dough in turn and rolled it with my hands to create a strand. Rolling was quite hard – I don’t think my technique was particularly good and as the strands were quite elasticated, they kept bouncing back shorter so they needed a lot of rolling. I also wasn’t sure whether to roll on a floured surface or not. I started rolling the strands on flour, but the dough was getting even more dry to handle so I quickly stopped that. I rolled my strands until they were approximately 25 cm (the second loaf was more like 23 cm), and then made a plait. I repeated the process for the second plait. I couldn’t pinch the ends of the plaits together very well as the dough was so dry, so a few of the ends were not secure.

Three (very dry and cracked) stands of the first loaf

I don’t know why, but the plait below really reminds me of a raw chicken!

Plaited first loaf
Three (dry and cracked) strands of the second loaf
Plaited second loaf

Step 7: Leave plaits to rise

I placed the plaits onto the oiled baking tray, and covered the tray with oiled cling film. I realised not long after doing this, that I had placed the cling film too tight, so I loosened it as I didn’t want it to prevent the loaves from rising properly. By the time I had managed to make the second loaf and put it on the tray, the first loaf had already risen quite noticeably!:

Loaves at the start of proving (second rise)

Due to the lag between preparing the two loaves, the bread had started proving from an unequal starting point – I hoped this wouldn’t cause any problems. The recipe says to leave the loaves to rise “in a warm place for 30 minutes or until doubled in size”. I left them to rise (prove) in the bedroom, as this was still the warmest place. After 30 minutes, the loaves had definitely risen. The first loaf was still marginally bigger than the second, and the ends of the plaits had come apart more. I decided to give the loaves 10 minutes more, just in case they hadn’t had enough time to rise.

Loaves after 30 minutes’ proving time

Step 8: Turn on oven

Whilst the loaves were rising, I turned on the fan oven to 210 degrees Celsius. From doing some research, I learnt that if you leave the loaves to rise too long on this second rise (or prove), then the loaves might collapse into themselves during baking, as apparently the bread undergoes a third rise in the oven.

After I had finished this bake, I also learnt that there is a handy fingertip test that you can do to test whether the dough is ready for baking. I’m a little confused, however, as I have read conflicting advice regarding this test. Mary Berry says:

“To test if dough has risen sufficiently, push in a finger; when withdrawn, an indentation should remain in the dough.”

But then I also read the following in an article by Alex Van Buren on myrecipes.com that says:

“But let it proof completely. For most loaves, this is when a soft poke with your fingertip leaves a small indentation on the dough, slowly creeps back, and ‘almost doesn’t come back all the way,’ says Golper. (If you poke in and the poke mark stays, whoops, you’ve overproofed!)”

So I’m confused because I’m not sure whether the indentation mark remaining is a good thing (as per Mary Berry), or whether the indentation mark remaining is a sign that you have overproved! I will need to look into this more…

Anyway, here are the loaves after 40 minutes’ time spent proving. I thought that they had doubled in size, so I decided that that was good enough:

Loaves after 40 minutes’ proving time

Preparing the Loaves for Baking

Step 1: Gather the ingredients

Before baking, I finished preparing the loaves. Here are the ingredients I used:

  • 1 large beaten egg (for glazing)
  • Poppy seeds (for sprinkling)
Ingredients for preparing the loaves for baking

Step 2: Finalise loaves

To finish the loaves, first I repositioned them on the tray widthways, as I thought I needed to allow more room between them for the bake. I then glazed them by brushing beaten egg over them – now they really did remind me of raw chickens!:

Glazing the loaves with beaten egg

Next, the recipe says to “sprinkle generously with poppy seeds”, so I did. And I was generous. At this point, I think I could smell alcohol! Most likely as a result of the fermentation process (yeast + sugar = alcohol + carbon dioxide) that the bread had undergone:

Sprinkling loaves with poppy seeds

Step 3: Bake loaves

I put the loaves in to bake on the middle shelf for ten minutes – the temperature had been preheated to fan oven 210 degrees Celsius. As I put the bread in, I managed to flip the thermometer over that I had placed on the shelf! Luckily I was still able to read it upside down… I could definitely smell bread at this point – and that was very satisfying! After ten minutes, I then reduced the temperature to fan oven 180 degrees Celsius and set the timer for 20 minutes more. Mary Berry says to bake “for 20 minutes, or until the loaves are a rich brown colour”.

It took about 5 minutes for my oven to cool from the higher temperature to the lower temperature, and as my oven seems to run on the hot side, my loaves were turning brown quickly. I took the loaves out with 5 minutes remaining on the timer, as they were very brown. Et voilà! I present to you my first ever bread loaves!

Baked Challah Loaves

Interestingly, the disparity in sizes of the two loaves didn’t seem as great as before they went in the oven. I then removed them from the tray with two wooden spoons (one loaf had stuck to the tray at one end, so it tore a little bit on the underneath). I tapped the bases to see if the loaves were cooked – they sounded hollow, which is how they should sound! Hooray, and thank the lord! I thought the bottoms also had a nice colour to them:

Bottom of one of the loaves

I left the loaves to cool on a wire rack. Once the loaves had cooled down, we ate one loaf (not all at once 🙂 ) and froze the other (I cut it into two pieces, so that we could enjoy it on two separate occasions).

Here are some more pictures of my bread-baking adventure:

Loaves on bread board
Closeup of loaves
Sliced Loaf
Closeup of sliced loaf
Slice of bread
Strawberries and banana on slices of bread – yum!

Verdict

Overall, I was really pleased with my first attempt at making bread – it tasted and looked just like bread! Appearance-wise, I think the bread looks good, but I’m not sure it is the ‘rich brown’ colour that it should be – perhaps it is a touch too dark. Next time I could try baking for less time, or turn the oven down a little. Another thing I could try is to cover the bread with kitchen foil mid-bake, to prevent the crust from going too brown before the middle has had time to cook properly.

I think one of the biggest problems with my bread was the dry dough. I possibly didn’t add enough liquid at the beginning, and I think I may have added too much flour when kneading the dough. I feel like I need to invest in a dough scraper and maybe a non-stick silicone mat – then I won’t need to worry so much about adding too much flour during kneading, which can throw off the structure of the dough.

I think the loaves are not bad shape-wise, given the dough was too dry to firmly secure the ends of the plaits. The bread was quite dense, perhaps more like cake than bread – maybe I should have proved it for longer. I think next time I will sift the flour to see if that makes a difference too. I was pleased that there wasn’t a bitter taste, which can occur if you use the wrong salt, so I think I will use the same non-iodised table salt again next time. You could definitely taste the salt, and the poppy seeds tasted lovely too. Warning: poppy seeds go absolutely everywhere when you cut into the bread!

Will must have been so enthused by the whole bread-making thing that he came back with a packet of very strong wholemeal bread flour from the supermarket, all of his own accord! I think he now has ideas of us (correction: ‘me’) baking wholemeal bread as our staple bread! Have you ever made bread? How did the process go for you?

For Reference

Here are some links to helpful videos and articles that I referred to during this bake:

  1. Beyond Flour: The Basic Bread Ingredients for Baking
  2. Which Salt You Should Use For Your Bread?
  3. How to Knead Dough
  4. Is there a Difference between Proofing and Rising Dough?
  5. How to Make Plaited Bread
  6. The 12 Most Common Bread Baking Mistakes to Avoid
  7. 10 Reasons Your Homemade Bread Is Too Crumbly

Published by

Helena Davies

Online EFL Tutor and Baker based in Cardiff, Wales.

4 thoughts on “Challah”

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