How to Bake Whole Wheat Challah
When the Lumpkin was two, I had to look into her cartoonishly large, concerned eyes and tell her I had lost my job. Very few acts require the same floorless, sickening responsibility. I had felt the same way only once before, when I stood before an expectant congregation to deliver a eulogy for my grandmother, the Lumpkin’s namesake.
For over a year, I looked for work and tried not to feel bad. Extended unemployment, in fact, is harder to overcome than grief. Science proved it, as reported in a news article published right at the time I needed that bad news least.
Early on during that period, I realized I needed some way to feel useful, creative, and successful. In a wild misestimation, I decided to learn how to make challah. Whole wheat challah. For the nutrition and taste, sure, but also for the foolish, doomed insistence on doing things My Way.
I chose an appropriately perfectionist method to learn how to make 100% whole wheat challah: I researched the whatwhat out of it. I bought some Jewish baking tomes. I baked some challah. And I sobbed when it failed. This cycle continued, and, as many amateur bread makers will tell you, did not improve. Some weeks the challah rose nicely. But some weeks it over-rose and collapsed lightly; some it under-rose and huddled densely. And every lesson learned and applied would not reliably result in that lovely challah texture.
Now, I enjoy a long, proud history of kitchen perfectionism. I have been known to cry over a slightly browned pan of chocolate chip espresso shortbreads (They’re supposed to be under baked! Why’d you try to bake with a three-year-old in the house!!). I have been known use a gloppy caramel as proof of my fundamental illegitimacy as a human breathing air and thinking thoughts.
But no one in my house ever thought the challah tasted bad. Even when I feverishly turned all the collapsed dough into crackers. Terrible Failure Crackers that didn’t even come out right as thick honey whole wheat autumn matzas. Which sounded delicious but tasted confusing. Because maybe you’ve met me: the only mom to get everything wrong every time.
When I finally got a job, I didn’t want to stop (failing at) baking challah for Shabbat. Instead of making it every Friday as an invigoratingly frustrating alternative to the demoralizingly frustrating job search, I made it on the weekend.
And then when the challah failed, that was like five weeks of failure. Because we made five small loaves and froze them for the next five shabbats. I handled this as well as you’d expect an anxious perfectionist to handle FIVE WEEKS OF FAILURE. I handled it ONLY IN ALL-CAPS.
However. With challah-making now a weekend activity, the Lumpkin got to join in. She learned how to braid by braiding our challah. She learned to knead and punch down and egg wash and poppy sprinkle. When my stepdad called to tell me that my grandma’s little sister, Auntie Honey, was dying, I left the 5-year-old Lumpkin braiding unsupervised so I could talk privately. When I returned, wet-eyed, her braids were perfect.
We are still making challah, and I still fail roughly two thirds of the time.
Our next-to-most recent batch used some bum yeast and didn’t rise properly. (Everyone asked for seconds). Then I overcorrected on the most recent batch and let it over-rise. The Lumpkin’s intricate, proud braids were puffed out beyond recognition and then cruelly flattened into insubstantial, knobby honey whole wheat focaccia.
My little Lumpkin is as perfectionist as me, but with only almost-8 years of perspective to my 40. She cries when her drawing’s askew, when her doll’s dress doesn’t fit right, when she can’t find the exact perfect bookmark.
So, when I took out of the oven our over-proofed, collapsed challahs, with no discernible braid pattern anywhere, I expected to have to swallow my own perfectionist shame in order to sooth hers. But my beautiful girl pulled some pride out of those loaves. She said, “I actually like it this way! Can we make sandwiches out of this?”
When I told her I was sorry about blowing out her beautiful braids, she breezily said, “I like how they look! This one still has a little braid left!”
And when I asked, “Are you sure they don’t taste like failure?” she laughed and reached for seconds.
100% Whole Wheat Challah
- 1 1/4 cups warm water
- 1 package active yeast
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 2/3 cups honey (measure the honey after the oil, in the same cup, to make the honey slip out like milk)
- 3 1/2 eggs, lightly mixed (save the leftover 1/2 egg for brushing on top if your grandparents survived pogroms or the Depression etc and you cannot waste anything even though half an egg won’t make enough egg wash, so you’ll have to crack another one, and the math just won’t work out. Or you could try 4 whole eggs and let me know how it goes.)
- 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 6 cups whole wheat flour
Warm up the mixing bowl by holding it under warm tap water. Pour in 1 1/4 cups warm water and sprinkle yeast on top. Let the yeast bubble while assembling other ingredients. If it doesn’t bubble, get out now before you’re in too deep! If it does, pour in the oil, honey, eggs, and salt and mix them with a fork. If using a stand mixer, turn on the lowest setting while adding 5 cups of flour. Add extra flour, up to the full 6 cups, until dough is only a little sticky. Mix for 5 minutes more (or knead for 10 minutes more) until when you pull apart the dough, the gluten makes crisscrossed, stretchy strands. Oil a large bowl, ball up the dough, oil up the ball, and stretch plastic wrap over the bowl. Let the dough rise in a warm place (I heat the oven for 2 minutes) until it is punch-down-able.
So, punch it down! Make little balls of dough corresponding to how many loaves you want. Roll the balls into li’l cute snakes. Let the dough rest 5 minutes if it’s hard to roll out. Cover yet-to-be-braided dough with a damp cloth, and braid up that challah. Brush each loaf with egg and stick it back in the warm oven to rise again. Or “proof,” if you’re fancy.
The proofing usually gets me, guys. I can blame the altitude (and I do!). But there’s really no excuse. Proof for like 20 minutes. Or maybe 40?? You want it to be a little bit puffier but not too much puffier. Egg wash it again and sprinkle with poppy seeds if you’re using them. You’ll want to lightly press poppy seeds into the loaves or they’ll roll all over your kitchen later, never to be swept, like all those crushed Cheerios and glitter and damn stickers and the rest of the detritus of young youth hidden in your corners.
Heat the oven to 375 and bake your gorgeous challahs for 20-25 minutes. Sometimes I remember to throw some ice cubes in a dish because the steam helps it rise better?
It will probably not taste perfect, but it will always taste good.