Traditionally, challah is sprinkled with either sesame or poppy seeds, but you can use any of a large variety of spices as well. Coarse salt and savory herbs go well with challah that is not sweet. Whole-wheat challah can be sprinkled with oatmeal, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds, or, for a rustic look, with white flour, whole-wheat flour, or rye flour.
Greasing the bottom and sides of the bowl with a bit of oil before putting in the ingredients will prevent the dough and flour from sticking to the bowl, and will make the cleaning up easier.
If the dough is too sticky for you, add the oil in the recipe only after the rest of the ingredients begin to form a dough. This way, the dough will be easy to work with and not sticky.
Beat The Clock
If you’re in a rush and you want to skip the second rising step, place the braided loaves in a cold oven. Then turn on the heat to 350° F (180° C) and bake until the loaves are ready. The second rising will take place in the oven, while the loaves are baking.
If the loaves have turned brown on top but are not sufficiently baked, you can cover them with aluminum foil and continue baking.
An Extra Touch
For especially airy challah: After dividing the dough into parts to be braided, use a rolling pin to roll each part into a flat sheet of approximately 1/4 inch (about ½ centimeter) thickness. Then roll the flat sheet jellyroll fashion and work it so that the seam disappears. Now the strands are ready for braiding.
Before braiding the loaves, make sure you have a large, clean work surface available. A special wooden board will make the job easier, but you can also use the kitchen table or the counter.
Ensure you have on hand these essential items: sifted flour, oil, and a sharp, smooth-edged knife.
Before you begin to braid, prepare the challah pans by greasing them with oil or margarine, or line them with baking paper. This way you can place each loaf in the pan for additional rising as soon as you finish braiding it.
Use a sharp knife to divide the dough into equal-size parts according to the number of pieces you need for braiding.
Work each piece of dough into a smooth ball by kneading it briefly on a floured surface. If the dough is too sticky, before you work it into a ball, sprinkle it liberally with sifted flour.
Working with greased hands makes braiding much easier, and keeps the dough from getting dry.
There are many ways to braid loaves aside from the traditional three-strand braided challahs. You’ll find ideas for different shapes and braiding techniques in the last section of the book, entitled “The Art of Braiding.”
Braid the challahs according to the instructions and place them immediately in the pan. If you leave the loaves to rise on the work surface, they’re liable to flatten when you transfer them to a baking pan.
Be sure to leave sufficient space between loaves in the pan (Bear in mind that the loaves will double in volume even before they are baked and will continue to rise during the baking process).
Leaving the dough at room temperature for too long can affect the quality of the challah. If you are baking a large quantity of challah, it’s best to keep the dough in the refrigerator and take out as much as you need for braiding one challah at a time.
Leave the braided challahs to rise in the pan for about 40 minutes. In the meantime, preheat the oven to the desired temperature. After the loaves have risen, brush them with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds or other topping before putting them in the oven to bake.
If the dough is very soft and is difficult to braid, place it in the refrigerator for a half-hour before braiding. The dough will be easier to work with after this cooling period.