A Beginner’s Guide to Braiding Challah
As I ventured into my first intensive week of baking a challah a day, I anguished about which yeast and flours to use. Did I have the correct equipment? Would the dough rise? It turned out that each recipe guided me through those hurdles. Not one, however, instructed me in creating the strands for the braids.
Repeatedly through the week, I struggled to lengthen the rounds long enough for braiding. The dough just did not shape easily. Impatient, I found myself dangling dough from one hand and stretching it downward with the other. Or, I held it from the top and jiggled it to stretch by force of gravity. I knew that I was supposed to roll it with my hands on my working surface. It just did not work for me.
I had always associated braided challah with Shabbat. It turned out that initially this Shabbat bread had no special name, having been called broyt (German) or lehem (Hebrew), as I learned from Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Only in the 15th century, relatively late in Jewish history, did the Jews of Austria and Southern Germany adopt oval, braided loaves following local Teutonic customs. Indeed while challah had other meanings in the biblical materials, it came to be associated with Shabbat loaves probably because of holla, a crone’s wild hair in local lore. Joseph ben Moses of Austria first mentions the term in connection with Sabbath bread in Leket Yosher of 1488 describing the custom of his teacher Israel Isserlein. Some bread experts note that braided breads existed in ancient Egypt. While Sephardi and Mizrachi communities used customary local breads, even flatbreads, braided breads became popular particularly among Ashkenazi Jews.
Certainly, many generations of homemakers and professional bakers had figured out braiding. Yet for me, a beginner, it was the hardest stage. Eventually, I found an online video from Jamie Geller with Reuben Grafton that clarified the mystery. Before shaping the dough, they divide it, tighten and seal it into balls, and set them to rest for 15-30 minutes on a parchment paper covered with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. This relaxes the gluten and makes the dough more stretchable. This method made it easier to roll the strands, remove bubbles, and keep the seams tight, using oil to smooth over any stubborn joints. Here are two approaches for molding the ropes.
A. With a rolling pin flatten each piece of dough into a rectangle. Then tightly roll up ropes by hand.
B. Roll by hand using the heel of your palm so that the ends are thinner and middle thicker.
When braiding, some bakers suggest braiding from the middle though others start at the top and work down. Here are some of my favorite video tutorials for shaping the braids into challah:
- This is a fun overview of ten braiding options in ten minutes. Ignore the background Hebrew chatter.
- For a six strand challah, which when doubled into two loaves, represents the shewbread of twelve loaves of the ancient Jerusalem Temple.
- Learn from New York Times food writer Melissa Clark how to fashion a three braid challah or a round challah.
- For a fun occasion, with a little courage, go for this star burst challah.
Now, I am heading back to the kitchen for more practice braiding.