The Best Challah (+ The Best Grilled Cheese)
Baking challah in a wood-fired oven will change any notions you ever held about challah.
By Danielle Frum
There are those who love challah, there are others who find the varnish-crusted eggy loaf too insipid, too soggy, and often too sweet.
My family and I have long belonged to the latter camp. For years, every Friday, we would buy two shellacked, knotted loaves. After the blessing over the challah was recited, each family member would take a small, dutiful tug of bread. The birds would get the rest – if the Labradors didn’t grab it first. The waste shamed us, but what could we do? Tradition, right?
Then, one summer day, I was having coffee with my friend Bruno Francois, who runs the Old Third winery near our Canadian summer lake house in Prince Edward County, Ontario
(FT&V readers may remember his partner Jens’ perfect crepe recipe for Shavuot, our answer to the blintz). Mid-summer is a relatively quiet period for a winemaker, and the always energetic Bruno now occupied his time with a new obsession: bread-making. Specifically baguettes.
“I spent six months researching how to make them,” Bruno said.
A friend of Bruno’s and Jens’ had recently parked a homemade wood fire oven on their property, and was currently being used to make pizza for weekend wine tasters. After he mastered the dough, Bruno had the brainwave of trying to cook it in the pizza oven.
How good was Bruno’s baguette? The result was like no baguette I’d ever tasted, even in Paris, even in the French countryside. Bruno placed two loaves on the table with a plate of hand churned butter. I primly suggested I was on a carb diet (true), and would just have a small bite. My husband said the same. Within fifteen minutes there were only crumbs left from the two loaves: we’d ravaged them as eagerly and as thoroughly as any two Labradors falling upon stolen stale challah.
“I don’t care how many pounds I just gained,” I murmered, completely satisfied. “It was worth it.”
At that moment the idea came to me to try making challah the same way – in a wood fire oven. Maybe with a scorched, rustic crust this weekly bread of affliction might be more like … a baguette? Bruno was immediately game. He’d never made challah before, but that only made it more of a challenge for him.
We scheduled a day to make the bread and in advance researched multiple recipes for challah. Despite claims by the authors that theirs was a family recipe passed down through generations of rebbetizin yadda yadda, all the recipes (and results) looked basically the same: eggy Wonderbread. The methodology, too, didn’t differ much between them. But I had a secret ingredient that none of the others had: a super-competitive French baking fiend with a wood fire oven. Bring on the revolution. Bruno and I were going to nail this thing. And, by Gosh, we did…
On B-Day, as I called it, I arrived in Bruno's kitchen with the best ingredients I could find, rounded up from local farm markets (fresh eggs, local wild honey etc.) Bruno placed a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on his nose and examined the recipes for challah I’d downloaded. He frowned.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“A serious baking recipe measures the ingredients by weight, not volume – kilos, not cups.”
“Why?” I asked him. If I haven’t already admitted it, I am a wretched baker. It’s all chemistry to me. And I’m lousy at chemistry.
“Basically it’s the difference between things turning out and not turning out,” he said, waving his hand. “A cup measurement is sloppier. There is humidity that can change the volume. So many reasons.”
Bruno rummaged in a cupboard and produced a beautiful set of antique scales. From then on I simply watched him go to work (except to pass Bruno ingredients or tools): He poured, he measured, he frowned again, he glanced at a recipe, scowled, paused, visibly had an idea, paused a second time, adjusted. He noted that the recipes did not allow “for the autolytic process.” I was hesitant to ask for an explanation, but, in the interest of science, I did.
“When you make a baguette, you add water to the flour and let it sit for 30 minutes. This allows the structure of the wheat cell to break down – and to require less kneading.” I passed him some of the Kosher salt that was called for in the next step. He waved it away. “I don’t add salt until the flour has had a chance to rest in the liquid ingredients. Let’s wait until after the autolytic process.”
Bruno waited for approximately 10 minutes before he was satisfied with the texture of the dough. “I would describe it as supple,” he said, as I grabbed my pen to write this pronouncement down. Afterwards, there was nothing to do but to wait a couple of hours for the dough to rise. I went off on a bike ride. On the return, I was delayed by a severe headwind. By the time I’d belatedly arrived, Bruno had already divided the dough and braided two magnificent loaves. I performed the last step: painting the braids with mixed egg and sprinkling them with poppy seeds.
“Bruno, the recipe said this would be enough for four loaves…” I said a little reproachfully, glancing at his two-foot long twisted masterpieces.
He shrugged. “I don’t know how large challah is supposed to be.”
Somehow we managed to transfer the two huge raw loaves onto his long wooden bread board. We balanced the challah across his lawn and a small country lane to the wood oven, in which Bruno had carefully nursed a fire to reach the correct temperature of 350-degrees. He jerked and yanked the board expertly so that the lumpy dough slid neatly into the fiery oven. Now all we could do was wait and see if the challah would survive the inferno. Bruno vanished into his tasting barn and extracted a bottle of cider, something his vineyard now makes in addition to its celebrated red, white, and sparkling Pinot Noirs. We nervously toasted the challah, like two expectant parents.
Twenty minutes later, Bruno withdrew a rather scorched looking loaf. We raced it on the board back across the lane and lawn to his kitchen. My son Nathaniel and his visiting college friend, Joe, had just driven up with one of our Fig Tree & Vine“Modern Rustic” challah boards, on which I intended to photograph the finished product. Their timing was perfect. Their young, hungry eyes gleamed at the warm loaf of bread as we set it on the counter.
Bruno fetched his bespoke butter.
Six minutes later the magnificent, two-foot-long challah was but a pile of crumbs and stray poppy seeds. Joe said, “I’m not a ‘member of the tribe,’ but … this was maybe the best bread I’ve ever had.”
And so it was.
Here was challah re-invented – or maybe even challah as it was before the advent of the electric stove: a crusty loaf scorched purple from the heat of the fire, with a sinewy, tasty interior – not too sweet, not too eggy, just … perfect. I took some home for my husband, who hates challah even more than most challah-haters.
“It’s still warm,” I coaxed, pushing it at him. And before I knew it, he’d devoured it too.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have any leftovers. But if you do, this same challah also lends itself to the world’s best grilled cheese – a recipe I’ve also gained from Bruno. It appears below the main challah recipe.
But please note: Even if you don’t have a wood fire oven, Bruno’s recipe will adapt easily to a regular oven. It is the definitive recipe. If you make challah any other way, stop now. I don’t care how many generations of Rabbis it comes from. (Bruno's Grilled Cheese recipe follows below challah recipe.)
Makes four loaves of challah, or two if you're Bruno. Use the best ingredients you can find.
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 kilo all purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 1/2 tb active dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
25 grams kosher salt
White sesame or poppy seeds for topping
Heat the milk in a small saucepan over low heat until just warm. Remove from heat.
Pour the flour into a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add the yeast, a small amount of the honey and 1/2 cup of the warm milk to the well. Let stand until foamy, approximately 10 minutes.
In a medium bowl quickly combine the rest of the milk and honey, oil, and three eggs. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture, about 1/2 a cup at a time, stirring and combining all the ingredients until the dough begins to form. When all the liquids have been absorbed, let the dough rest for another 20 minutes. It is important not to overhandle the dough at this stage. This gives the "autolytic process" the opportunity to start breaking down the cell structure of the dough, and will make for a more elastic dough requiring less kneading, according to Bruno. When this is done, add the salt, stir again, and then turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface.
Bruno kneads the dough by placing the two heels of his hands on top of each other, and pushing it forward on the counter, repeating the gesture over and over as if he was trying to pave a road using recalcitrant cement. It gets the lumps out very effectively. When the dough or surface became too sticky, he rejected a recipe's advice to add more flour, and instead sprinkled the dough with a few drops of water. The dough immediately became less sticky and more manageable, without risking, as Bruno observed, "changing the ratio of the flour in the dough."
After 10 minutes of kneading, Bruno declared the dough ready. "I would describe this as supple now."
Most recipes call for the dough to be put to rise in an oiled bowl covered by a damp cloth. Bruno went to fetch what he calls his "fermentation vessel" and returned, rather disappointingly, with a simple large plastic crate, such as you would store files or sweaters in.
"The dough won't stick to this surface. You don't need oil." He put the dough in the box and covered it with the matching plastic lid. "This helps with the humidity," he explained. "Better than a cloth."
The dough rested 1- 2 hours, or until doubled in size. When it was ready, Bruno punched it down and split the dough in half (for four loaves, divide the dough in quarters), and from there divided each piece again into 6 equal portions (Bruno used 6 braisd per load but you can use 3, too -- in which case just divide the remaining dough into 3 equal portions). He placed the dough pieces on floured parchment paper, and let them rest another 15 minutes.
By then the dough was ready to be rolled, by hand, into long ropes of equal size and width, tapered at the ends. Bruno did by starting his rolling with both hands in the center, and rolling his hands out in opposite directions over the dough, as if he were running his hands up and down over a keyboard.
Then he took six of the ropes and braided them into one long enormous loaf -- pinching the ends to seal them and tucking them underneath. Then he did the same thing the other loaf. He then covered them under floured, as opposed to damp, linen cloths and let them stand until they had nearly doubled again in size -- a half hour or so.
When ready to bake the loaves, make sure the wood oven is at 350 degrees (the same temperature you would bake them in an electric oven).
In a small bowl, lightly beat the remaining egg and, with a brush, paint the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle artfully with the seeds.
In wood oven or stove, the load should take about 20 minutes. It's ready when it's golden and a toothpick shoved into the middle comes out dry.
The Best Grilled Cheese
The same French friend of mine, Bruno Francois, who perfected the above recipe for challah, also taught me how to make the perfect grilled cheese. The key lies in toasting both sides of each slice of bread. In other words, you butter the slices and, before putting the cheese in, toast what will be the interior sides, over low heat in a cast iron pan. Then you add the cheese, assembling it as a sandwich, and toast the outsides of the bread slices while the cheese inside melts. You can cover it with a lid to expedite the cheese melting if the bread is getting too toated.
Leftover challah lends itself well to this method of making grilled cheese. The toasted sides restored a needed crunch to the otherwise listless “crust”; the soft, eggy sweetness of the bread’s interior nicely complemente a melted sharp, salty cheese, such as gruyere (the only cheese Bruno considers suitable for grilled cheese FYI).