Challah Bread from a Starter

  • Serves: Makes 1 large loaf
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Kelly wanted to do a Challah tutorial, and asked me for my favorite recipe. Of course I had one!

Having grown-up eating Challah bread as part of my heritage, I think I have tried and/or baked just about every recipe there is - much to my disappointment - until now! There are tons of recipes available, but so few had detailed steps to get the recipe right! And, so often the end result was dry and not rich enough with egg yolks, the braiding was hard to do, the baked color never turned a deep mahogany, or the braids rose too much during baking, revealing too much white bread beneath the dark crust, ruining the overall look. Many loaves became misshapen as a result - when they should have remained football-shaped. I am very particular about my Challah because my mother, an exceptional baker, used to make what I think was the very best, and I can remember it vividly! From her, I knew that making a great Challah bread takes a great recipe and a lot of techniques to get right!

My mother had what was the perfect recipe, and of course I failed to write it down before I had a chance - it's been over 25 years now. I baked so many at her side - during which she taught me how to make the perfect Challah - learning to her was serious business. She was very precise with her instructions, except she made the recipe by heart, like so many friends of hers. My mother's used a sourdough starter, instead of cake yeast (dehydrated was not available, yet) - all challah was made from a starter before packaged yeast was invented - and it set her bread apart - it was exceptionally moist, flavorful, easy to braid, kept well, and had a wonderful tender texture. I now wished I had urged her to slow down so I could record the recipe - but at that age, I thought my mom would be live for a long time and be around when I needed her, so I failed to do so. Famous last words, right? Unfortunately, she passed away, and the recipe was lost, before I could start my own family, when Challah became important to me. But, I did remember her techniques.

So, I had to develop my own Challah recipe, which is actually a brioche - with more egg and less liquid and fat.

I kept on doing research and finally found a Challah recipe made from a sourdough starter from Maggie Glezer's book, A Blessing of Bread, published in 2000 - it worked beautifully, but it was time consuming. In my own recipe writing, I liked the idea of a sponge starter, which I used in my Whole Grain Wheat Bread From a Starter by Sarah Phillips, published in my Baking 9-1-1 Book, in 2003; the starter helped tone down the normally harsh flavor-edge from my whole wheat flour bread recipe - and evoked varied and more subtle flavor notes, with a more tender and moist texture. I tried a similar starter with my Challah recipe, and found great results.

Later, in 2008, Maggie Glezer wrote a Challah recipe with a similar quick starter technique, which I adapted, altering her ingredients and adding in my own techniques to get the best results I desire in a classic Challah bread - In all, I fixed many of the problems that go wrong in a classic recipe, making Challah difficult to master. In addition, I created a new and better way to make dough snakes for the braids, often an issue, and a braid weaving coded color chart tutorial to help you with the task of braiding six strands, which can get really confusing. Kelly brings the whole tutorial to life with her stunning photos and baking skills - I swear - it seems as though she has been baking Challah all her life! She does a stunning job at braiding the loaf, too - which the starter helps make the job easier - important to the overall look and texture! Besides, the deep mahogany color to her crust is perfect! 
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