Rituals are important, especially about food. Doing the same thing over and over again is how you learn to get better.

Case in point: making bread. I didn’t know how to make bread when I first showed up for a Shabbat dinner at my friends’ house, which showed in my blobby and pale no-knead loaf. But I practiced from then on, every Friday. Loaf after loaf after loaf. I bought more flours, bulk yeast, cookbooks, and a baking stone. I’ve done pitas andpain de campagne and whole-wheat flax and red wine and cheese. A lot sucked. A lot were good.

I’m not Jewish, and even though one of my hostesses is, the religiosity of the event is more symbolic than anything (we do sing the prayer, when we remember). The three girls cook a variety of meals—elaborate to simple, but always delicious—we drink (too much) wine, and I bring bread. It’s simple, but in its own oddball way, it’s kind of sacred too—like any ritual worth doing.

Enough schmaltz. The bread! Challah is a sweet, eggy loaf traditionally served on Fridays, dipped in a little salt. It’s soft and delicious and makes wonderful French toast the day after. I’ve made various permutations of it (no-knead, whole-grain, raisin-studded and turban-shaped) but I think this is my favorite recipe so far. I used honey instead of the sugar in the recipe, because…I was out of sugar. But I like the taste of honey better anyway, so there. The secret to the dark crust is two egg washes: one before the final rest, and one right before baking.

My braiding skills leave much to be desired, but like I said…practice, practice, practice.

Challah Bread
adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
makes two loaves

  • 18 oz (4 cups) bread flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/3 tsp. instant yeast
  • 3/4 c. room temperature water
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 egg whites, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
  • Sesame or poppy seeds (or both!) for sprinkling 

Whisk together flour, salt, and yeast. In a separate bowl, mix together water, eggs, yolks, honey, and oil. Stir wet ingredients into dry until they form a ball, adding a little extra water if needed.

Turn the ball onto a clean counter and knead for 10 minutes, until dough is springy (alternatively, knead in a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment for 6 minutes on medium-low speed). Lightly oil a large bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, turn it on all sides to get it coated with oil, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let ferment on the counter for 1 hour.

After one hour, remove the dough and knead it lightly for 2 minutes to degas. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl, cover, and let rise for another hour, or until doubled in size.

Remove dough from bowl and, using a dough scraper, divide into six equal portions (a scale is handy for this). Shape each into a ball, and let rest on the counter, covered by a clean dishtowel, for 10 minutes.

Roll each ball into a long strand. Braid three strands into a loaf, starting in the middle and pinching the ends closed. Repeat with remaining strands. Transfer loaves to a parchment (or silpat) lined baking sheet and brush with egg wash. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for an hour (or slightly longer) until about 1 1/2 times original size.

Preheat oven to 350º. Brush loaves with egg wash again, and sprinkle with seeds, if using. Bake for 20 minutes on middle rack, then rotate sheet for even baking. Bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until richly golden brown. Remove from sheets to cool on rack for at least an hour before slicing and eating.

Shabbat shaloam!