Breaking Bad Challah

Posted by hsimpsongrossman on May 9, 2014

I tried quite a few challah recipes over the years.  Egg challah and water challah, cinnamon-raisin and pumpkin, pretzel challah and pull-apart, chocolate chip and whole wheat.  Once you figure out the flour-to- water-to-yeast ratio and master the basic technique, you wonder what’s the fuss all about.

Until I tasted Yaffa’s famous challah.   As I was going over the recipe I  felt a bit out of my element, as I couldn’t figure out what were a lemon and baking powder doing there.

Sorry.  Let me take a step back and introduce Yaffa.  Yaffa took upon herself the inconceivable task of giving a Challah baking workshop to a group of about 60 twelve year old girls at Princess’s Bat-Mitzvah celebration (and lived to tell the tale).  More to the point, her Challah is said to be the best in her neck of the woods.  Having tasted it, I can personally attest to that.

I assumed the X Factor in the dough was the addition of lemon juice and baking powder but didn’t understand their role.  Yaffa said that this was her mother’s and grandmother’s mythological recipe and that whenever she had asked them the same question, all they would say was that those were their secret ingredients and as such she should figure it out for herself.  Yaffa said she liked the mysterious allure and never bothered to solved the chemical puzzle.

I lacked energy to conduct scientific research at the time and embraced oblivion for a while.  Until the day I brought the recipe to my Forumwhere challenging questions are constantly raised and no one takes a  “that’s how it has been always done” for an answer.

Which is where I introduce to you Esti, Perfect Son’s legendary chemistry teacher, who, in addition to being a “teacher for life” type of teacher, finds her way into every possible voluntary activity or committee our community comes up with.

While waiting for the assembly of one of those committees, I asked Esti to put her chemistry teacher cap on and solve the lemon and baking powder mystery for my Forum.   She offhandedly scribbled the formula below on a piece of paper and said something about the reaction between the sodium carbonite in the baking powder and acid from the lemon producing carbon dioxide.

Yaffa Challah Breaking Bad
B(re)aking Bad

“Ahh! of course!” I said, and quickly took a picture on my phone, knowing there is no way I will remember that by the time I get home.

Thanks to further discussions with Perfect Son, my other chemistry guru, I now feel confident enough to explain the phenomena to you in plain English: The reaction between baking powder and lemon juice generates carbon dioxide (CO2), so that an already inflated yeast dough, gets a boost of extra gas/bubbles.  That extra CO2 results in the airiest, fluffiest brightest Challah I’ve ever tasted.

I like to make this dough in the spring and summer, when the days are longer and I have more time on Fridays to prepare for Shabbat, as this dough requires a bit of attention and nurturing.  During busy weeks or shorter Fridays, I split the process and let the first proof occur overnight in the Fridge.

I don’t use a stand mixer for this dough as mine is neither big nor strong enough.  Luckily, this dough is a pleasure to work with and I make believe that all that kneading can be counted toward my daily exercise.

I substitute up to ¼ of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour and add about 2 tablespoons of water per cup of whole wheat flour used (an additional half cup of water altogether in the case of this recipe).  Depending on the weather, the altitude you’re in and the temperature in your private kitchen, you might need to add a bit more or less water to produce a smooth, yet not overly sticky, dough, as the variables mentioned above affect the amount of water the flour absorbs.

Finally, for a golden-brownish challah I use a tip given to me by a young and promising baker, Oded Fisher: I bake the loaves during the initial 10 minutes in a higher temperature (400 degrees Fahrenheit/(200 degrees Celsius), and add honey and oil to the egg wash.

Yaffa Challah Hot Stuff
Hot Stuff

Yaffa’s Challah on the Spot: Mix wet ingredients.  Add flour.  Add salt. Set aside for first proof.  Add baking powder and lemon.  Set aside for second proof. Braid loaves.   Leave for final proof.  Brush with egg wash and bake.  Voilà!

Breaking Bad Challah

(By the way, I assume anyone who reads my blog knows what Breaking Bad is.)


For the Dough:

4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) sifted all-purpose flour.  Up to a pound (4 coups rounded up, ~450 grams) whole wheat flour can substitute the same amount of all purpose-flour

4 tablespoons active dry yeast

6 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons salt

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used canola)

4 plus 1 cups lukewarm water, (the fifth cup to be used if and as needed), plus about 2 additional tablespoons per each cup of whole wheat used

Juice of one lemon

2 teaspoons (0.7 oz, 10 grams) baking powder

Egg Wash:

1 egg

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons honey


poppy/sesame/caraway/sunflower seeds, kosher salt, oats, fried onion bits and so on


In a large bowl (big enough to contain all the ingredients for the dough), dissolve the active dry yeast with 4 cups of lukewarm water (4 1/2 if substituting some of the flour with whole wheat flour) and the sugar.  Mix in the eggs and the oil.  Cover loosely with a towel and set aside in a warm place in your kitchen for about 10-15 minutes.

Yaffa Challah Big Bowl
BIG Bowl

By the end of those 10-15 minutes, the yeast mixture should be foamy, have a rounded dome on top and nearly doubled in size.  If the yeast did not foam or does not seem active, my advise is to discard of it, as it seams to have little or no vitality and repeat the process with a different batch of yeast.  If it has risen, use it immediately (or it will turn sour).

Yaffa Challah The Dome
The Dome

Add the flour to the yeast mixture and knead for about five minutes.

Yaffa Challah Work Out
My Work Out

Add up to one cup of water, if and as needed. The dough should be soft but not sticky.

Cover with a towel or saran wrap and set aside for about ten minutes.

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of salt and with wet hands kneed the salt lightly into the dough until combined. Cover and let stand for 10 more minutes.

Yaffa Challah Kneading the Salt In
Kneading the Salt In

After 10 minutes, wet your hands and lightly knead the dough a bit more.  Cover and let proof until the dough doubles in size, for about 45 minutes, until the dough doubles in hour and a half.  Alternatively, let it proof in the fridge overnight (8-10 hours).

Yaffa Challah After First Proof
After First Proof

And now, to the moment we have all been waiting for: once the dough has inflated, sprinkle the baking powder and pour the freshly squeezed juice.

Yaffa Challah White Powder
White Powder

This will cause a chemical reaction and foam will appear on the dough.

Yaffa Challah Chemical Reaction
Chemical Reaction

Knead the foam into the dough.  The dough will lose its shape and volume.  That’s OK.  Trust me.  Like a phoenix it will rise again, higher than it was before.

Cover it and let proof for about another hour and a half 45 minutes, until regained its previous volume.

Yaffa Challah Peek a Boo
Peek a Boo

Once it has regained its size, on a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 7 portions.  Divide each portion into three, each weighing about 2 oz. (150 grams).  You will end up with 21 portions.

Smear some olive oil on your hands and kneed each portion of dough into a round little ball.  Then, roll out each ball into a rectangle, about 12 inches long, not less than about ¼ inch thick.

Yaffa Challah Lined Up
Lined Up

Roll each rectangle into a strand (known as a “snake” in our household).  Roll them back and forth to make sure the seams get erased.  Apply a bit more pressure as you roll from the center of the strand outwards, as strands which are thicker in the center result in nice, pot- bellied challah loaves.

Yaffa Challah Snake Pit
Snake Pit

Braid the loaves and using a pastry brush, gently brush them with the egg wash.  Apply two coats of egg wash to each loaf.

Sprinkle poppy/sesame/caraway/sunflower seeds, kosher salt, oats, fried onion bits or any other topping on the loaves.

Cover lightly and let proof one last time, for about half an hour 20 minutes, until nice and puffy.

Yaffa Challah Braided

Meanwhile, turn your oven on 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) and prepare your egg wash: whisk the egg with olive oil and honey for an amber colored, smooth mixture.

Bake for 10 minutes on 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).  Reduce the heat (DO NOT FORGET TO REDUCE THE HEAT!) to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and bake for additional 30-35 minutes, rotating once in the middle for even baking, until nice and brown on top and light golden on the bottom.

Remove the loaves from the baking pan and let cool on a cooling rack. As soon as you place them on a cooling rack, cover with a kitchen towel to retain inner moisture and softness.

Yaffa Challah Chilling

Assuming you are not planning to eat them all immediately, wrap cooled loaves tightly with saran wrap and then with foil paper (or seal-able bags) and freeze.  The Challah loaves will keep well frozen, for a few months.  When ready to use, defrost at room temperature for about an hour before you plan to serve them and warm up in the oven on low heat (275 degrees Fahrenheit/130 Celsius) for about 10 minutes.

Yaffa Challah Shabbat Shalom2
Shabbat Shalom

Filed under Savory Baking


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