Challah

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Challah.  It’s a special braided bread, usually eaten on the Sabbath and Holidays.  I make and eat it whenever I get the chance; it’s that good!

Although I think Beth Hensperger’s challah recipe (found in Bread Made Easy) is by far the best out there, I had to make the FCI’s Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking version as a basis of comparison.  I have come to judge many bread cookbooks by their Challah recipe.  Here is a recount of my adventure in baking challah the FCI way.

A major difference between the Hensperger formula and the FCI formula is the amount of eggs.  The FCI version uses a plethora of whole eggs as well as a significant quantity of egg yolks.  Because the FCI formula uses weight (as opposed to “4 eggs”), I ended up using around a dozen eggs in their recipe.  By contrast, the [perhaps modernized] Hensperger recipe uses just 4 eggs.

The techniques used in the FCI challah formula are as easy as they come – most of your time will be spent waiting for the dough to rise.  Because the FCI recipe makes 4 “medium size” loaves, it is again too much for the KitchenAid Artisan to handle.  You’ll have to either divide the recipe in half or possess a heavy duty stand mixer.  I don’t know too many home chefs that have a Hobart sitting on their counter.  Once everything is risen, the dough is easy to handle and has a yellow hue due to all the egg yolks.

Speaking of egg yolks, I found some heirloom eggs in my local Whole Foods that are from the Ameraucana and Marans hens.  They are blue on the outside and they are distributed by Pete and Gerry’s.  These eggs have an intensely colored yolk and they possess a far richer flavor profile than the typical “eat less, produce more and live in a battery cage” eggs found in your local grocer.  I use these eggs when making all of my breads.

I like to braid my challah into a 3-stand free-form loaf.  For one, I still haven’t mastered the 6-strand, and I like the look of the three strand.  You could also bake this in a bread pan, make hamburger buns, cinnamon rolls or anything you can imagine out of this dough, so don’t think you have to make a braided loaf.

Another view:

After the final proofing, they will puff up and expand.  Although I always double egg-wash my challah, the FCI recipe has more sugar and fat, and produces a much darker crust which is quite attractive.  Don’t worry – the misshapen loaves are due to my braiding technique!  (I like to call it “The Artisan Touch”…remember to turn all mistakes into glory)

The taste of the FCI challah is much, much more “eggy” than the Hensperger recipe.  My wife immediately took a disliking to the FCI challah and declared that I am never to make it again – that I will be forever sticking to the Hensperger recipe!  Her loyalty is not misguided.  I, too, felt that the FCI challah lacked the taste, fluffiness and texture of the Hensperger recipe.

So, without hesitation, I made a single batch of the Hensperger challah for comparison.  This challah is more “hands on” and less rigid than the FCI demonstration.  In this challah, you start off just about the same but you start incorporating the flour 1/3 cup at a time using the paddle attachment.  After the dough starts to pull away from the bowl and up the paddle, you switch to the dough hook and incorporate just enough remaining flour to get the bread the right consistency and gluten development.  This is more of a “gut feel” approach than a rigid scientific approach.  Sometimes I use a total of 8 cups of flour in her recipe and sometimes I use as little as 7 cups.  Since there is hand-kneading involved (and I love the hands-on approach versus doing it all in the machine), the exact amount of required flour is determined not by you but by the dough itself.  In other words, through keen observation, the dough will tell you when it is ready to go to the rising bucket.

Ever since I switched from the Fleischmann’s “Active Dry” supermarket packets of yeast to the SAF IDY, I have enjoyed a much faster rise time when making this challah.  A 2.5 hour first rise now occurs in just about 1.5 hours or less.  My wife also says the SAF yeast is not as “yeasty” as the Fleischmann’s.  It certainly is “quicker”…

I was too lazy to get pics of this challah during the mixing and rising processes but I did capture a shot of the finished product – which is two colossal loaves, free-form style.  Note: in the front you will see one of the FCI’s Straight Baguette’s.  I will say that the dough will rise quickly in this recipe – and if you are not paying attention it will blow the top off your extra large dough rising bucket!

Lessons Learned:

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • The Hensperger challah is extremely reliable and forgiving.
  • The FCI challah may be more traditional – it certainly isn’t healthy.
  • I used orange blossom honey (I live in FL, it is prevalent).  Make sure you use real honey.  A lot of local producers “fill” their honey with HFCS to increase their profit margin.  Make sure you get your honey from a reputable source!
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