Ronnie Fein’s Grandma’s Challah

I have so many family recipes that I make over and over and have taught them to my children and grandchildren -- so many special ones, that it is difficult to choose one. But, as a start, I decided on my grandma’s recipe for challah.

Many years ago I had lunch with a long-lost cousin on my father’s side who had been brought up by that grandmother (and grandfather). I hadn’t seen him in 40 years. We started to talk about his life with them and at some point, got to the cooking and of course, the challah. He told me that Grandma’s challah was legendary and that once, one of her challahs went up at auction for their synagogue and it raised $100. And that was in the 1930s! A fortune of money, but I guess the buyer knew how good that challah would be.

My mother had always told me that Grandma made great challah, but by the time I was old enough to know better, she had passed away, so I could never ask her how she made it, what special techniques or tips she had for me.

My mother gave me her recipe, but, like so many old-fashioned recipes, it really wasn’t. It was just a list of ingredients and that list called for stuff like “8 hands of flour” and “1/2 hand of sugar” and so on.

It took many tries for me to work this out. But I finally got it right. For years now, people have told me that my challah is legendary. People ask me to bring one on all sorts of occasions. And perhaps the best compliment I ever got was when my daughter asked me to bake the challah for a grandchild’s bat mitzvah.

I am sure my grandma is smiling somewhere in the great beyond.

Here is the award-winning challah recipe:

Ronnie Fein’s Grandma’s Challah

2 packages active dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water (about 105 degrees F; feels slightly warm to touch) 1/2 cup sugar 8 cups all-purpose flour, approximately 1 tablespoon salt 5 large eggs 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1–1/2 cups warm water (about 105 degrees) Poppy seeds or sesame seeds, optional

In a small bowl, mix the yeast, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon sugar and a pinch of flour. Stir and set aside for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly.

While the yeast is resting, place 7-1/2 cups flour with the remaining sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook. Add 4 of the eggs, the vegetable oil, and the 1-1/2 cups water. Mix, using the dough hook until well combined. Add the yeast mixture and blend in thoroughly. Knead for about 3-4 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add more flour as needed to make the dough smooth and soft, but not overly sticky.

Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place for about 1-1/2 hours or until doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down, cover the bowl, and let rise again for about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Remove the dough to a floured surface.

Cut the dough into 3 or 6 pieces, depending on whether you are going to make a 3- or 6- strand braid. Make long strands out of each piece. Braid the strands and seal the ends together by pressing on the dough. Place the bread on a lightly-greased cookie sheet. Beat the last egg. Brush the surface with some of the egg. Sprinkle with seeds if desired. Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

While the dough is in the last rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the challah for about 30 minutes or until firm and golden brown.

Makes one large challah. You can cut the dough in half to make two smaller loaves (bake for about 22-25 minutes) or make a half recipe. (For half recipes you can use a food processor to make and knead the dough).

Here’s how to make a 6-strand braid:

Lay the six strands alongside each other and press the strands together at the top to seal the top edge. Then braid the strands as follows:

1. far-right strand all the way over to the left

2. former far-left strand all the way over to the right

3. the now-far-left strand into the middle

4. the second-from-right strand all the way over to the left

5. the now-far-right strand into the middle

6. the second-from-left all the way over to the right

7. the now-far-left into the middle

8. repeat steps 4-

7 as many times as necessary to use up the strands

9. press the strands together at the bottom

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