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Like Water for Challah

(by Paula Pendleton Franklin)

"Put some water on your hands, Mom," says my daughter Harper, three years old. We are making challah bread, or trying. We are not Jewish. But she goes to a modern Orthodox pre-school (chosen because it is sweet and small and a great fit for her), and like a good Jew, she expects challah every Friday for the Shabbat dinner we won't be having.

I am a hopeless baker. Unlike cooking, you can't fix or alter your product if it doesn't turn out. My baking never seems to turn out.

So I get the idiot-proof challah recipe from her teacher. Honey, not sugar, she says. I also get advice for my next pregnancy (not going to happen): that I should knead challah because it helps prepare you for labor. My thought is: Some husband made that up centuries ago to make sure he still had a fresh challah, no matter how pregnant his wife was.

(with daughters Harper and Penny)

I get tips from a friend: Make sure that the yeast is fresh and that it foams. I head to the store and get the freshest yeast I can find.

I ask my neighbor. She says, "It's cold out, so put the dough in the oven or microwave with a cup of warm water."

We put the fresh yeast in the water; it foams.

We add dry ingredients; they come together.

We put the dough in the oven with a cup of warm water for an hour.

We go play the Frozen matching game. Harper wins, and I promise I didn't let her.

We go back to the oven. The dough did not double in size, as it was meant to do.

We play outside.

The dough still doesn't rise.


We give it another 30 minutes.


I decide to try rolling it out. It doesn't feel like challah dough.

"Put water on your hands, Mommy."

I get my hands wet. It doesn't help.

I know this isn't going to work. I call my husband to pick up some challah from the bakery. He brings home a beautiful loaf. We all enjoy the challah on a Friday night.

Luckily, Harper comes home most Fridays with braided challah dough, ready for the oven. It bakes, and the house smells amazing.

She has one more year of Jewish school, so we can give it another go.


Paula Pendleton Franklin is the director of Empowers Africa, a non-profit organization that supports human empowerment, wildlife protection, and land conservation in sub-Saharan Africa.


(adapted from Bon Appetit)

1⁄2 c. sugar 2 envelopes dry yeast (or 4 1⁄2 t.) 1 T. salt 1 3⁄4 c. warm water (105 – 115 F.) 4 eggs at room temperature 1⁄2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled 6 – 7 c. unbleached bread flour

1 egg

2 T. milk or cream

poppy seeds or sesame seeds, optional

Combine sugar, yeast and salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty standing or handheld mixer.

Whisk in water, eggs, and butter.

Add 3 cups flour and mix with the dough hook until smooth, about 3 minutes.

(Do not use a food processor. If you don’t have a heavy-duty mixer, use those muscles and a wooden spoon.)

Add enough remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to form soft dough.

Knead on a floured surface until dough is satiny, about 10 minutes, kneading in more flour if sticky.

Grease a large bowl and add dough, turning to coat entire surface.

Cover bowl with towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled, about 1 1⁄4 hours.

Gently knead dough on lightly floured surface until deflated.

For large loaf: Cut of 1/3 of dough.*

Cover both pieces with towel and let rest 10 minutes.

Divide larger piece of dough into 3 pieces, and roll each into 14-inch rope.

Braid together, working from middle to ends.

(If you want a football-shaped challah, make the ropes fatter in the middle, so when you braid them, the center part is wider than the ends. A friend of mine uses oval aluminum disposable challah pans that help shape the final product.)

Pinch ends together.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place on prepared pan, tucking ends under.

Cut remaining dough into 3 pieces, and roll each into 9-inch rope.

Braid together, and set smaller braid atop larger, dampening the bottom of the smaller braid and pressing gently so it stays anchored.

Cover with waxed paper or a towel, and let rise in warm, draft-free area until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Beat egg with milk or cream, and brush on dough.

Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds, if desired.

Bake until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 50 minutes.

Immediately transfer to rack and cool.

*For 2 medium loaves, cut dough in half. Divide each half into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into 8-inch rope. Form 2 braids. Transfer to 2 pans lined with parchment, and let rise as above. Bake about 45 minutes. For variation, use 1 1⁄2 to 3 1⁄2 cups whole-wheat flour to replace equal amount of bread flour. Substitute honey for sugar. Dough may take a little longer to rise.


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