'Easter bread': Veteran bread baker shares the art of making challah

April 4, 2012 10:33:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


For bread maker Rebecca Watson of Starkville, the best reward is often in the expressions of those tasting fresh homemade bread, especially artisan bread, for the first time. 


"It's just very satisfying to see the look when they put that piece of bread in their mouths ... their eyebrows go up and they say, 'My, that's good!" 


Watson shared that goodness, as well as her skills, with participants in a challah (pronounced "hallah") bread class Saturday in the demonstration kitchen at Thyme in Starkville.  


Challah is a traditional Jewish bread, sometimes called "Easter bread," because the egg-enriched loaves are often served on Easter, as well as at ceremonial occasions and during festival holidays. 


Loaves are most often braided, using anywhere from two to six rope-like strands of dough, and topped with sesame seeds or poppy seeds. Challah owes its smooth, golden brown top to an egg wash applied prior to baking. 


For Saturday's class, participants practiced with three equal strands. 


"You braid it like you would for hair and tuck the ends under," said Watson, who formerly baked breads for Anthony's in West Point. "Then you let it rise, add the egg wash and add sesame or poppy seeds and bake it off." 


The instructor prepared enough dough for each participant to have half a loaf they could manipulate in class. 


"The hardest thing, especially if you're not familiar with bread making at all, is getting the texture right. Some people are surprised that this is a stickier dough than they're used to," she explained. 


Not bread alone 


Challah holds religious significance in the Jewish community. According to tradition, two complete loaves are served at a meal. This is said to commemorate the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Manna did not fall on the Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before these special days, providing for the multitudes. 


At Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, you will normally see challah woven into a round shape (as opposed to loaves), representing the circle of life or the cycle of a new year. 


Aside from its symbolism, challah is praised as a great sandwich bread and one of the best breads to use for French toast. Some cooks on occasion like to add onion, raisins or dried cranberries, among other ingredients. Sweeteners, like honey, can also be added.  




At Thyme 


The challah class is one of several Watson has taught at Thyme. The kitchen and tabletop shop operated by Ann Bell and her daughter, Foley Holditch, opened in March 2011 and has been offering classes and special events ever since. 


"We've done everything from sushi, cookies and cupcake decorating to a quail dinner," said Bell, who retired in 2010 after 26 years in human resources at Mississippi State University. "We recently even did a Bobby Flay Throw-Down." 


Thyme works with a number of chefs. 


"For example, someone may purchase a class for eight for their spouse for a birthday, anniversary or Christmas, and we'll contact a chef and plan a menu in conjunction with the client," Bell explained. 


Guests are treated to a chef's demonstration, followed by an elegant seated dinner. 


Price for classes or custom events range from $35 to about $75 per person, depending on the menu. 


Response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, especially for hands-on classes. 




Artisan bread 


Next up for Watson is teaching an artisan bread workshop at Thyme later this spring. 


She describes artisan bread as a "country bread that spends a good deal of time proofing (rising) unattended." 


In the past, bread recipes called for substantial amounts of flour, "but with the advent of artisan bread making, the amount of flour has decreased, which gives you a better texture and better crumb."  


For novice bread bakers, Watson encourages patience and practice. 


"For several years, I baked door stops. Then I started to bake loaves that smelled and looked great. The taste, however, was nothing. Finally, after much reading (and making some truly awful bread), I began to bake bread that tasted as good as it looked and smelled." 


The factors? Less flour, more water, less yeast, and lots and lots more time, she said. 


And the pay off? "That 'Ohh!' when the loaf comes out of the oven, browned, big and lovely." 






Makes one large braided loaf, or two smaller loaves 




4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached flour 


2 tablespoons (1 ounce) granulated sugar 


1 teaspoon (.25 ounce) salt 


1 1/3 teaspoon (1.5 ounces) yeast (See note below) 


2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature 


2 large whole eggs 


2 large egg yolks (save the whites for the wash; see below) 


3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk, room temperature 


2 egg whites, whisked with a tad of water 


Sesame or poppy seeds 




  • Blend dry ingredients in bowl or mixer with paddle attachment. 


  • Briefly whisk together butter, eggs, egg yolks and milk. With mixer running, add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Mix on low until a shaggy mass assembles. 


  • Change to bread hook. Mix on medium for 6 minutes or until a nice slapping sounds results. 


  • Put dough onto board and knead briefly. Place in bowl covered with plastic. Let rise for 1 hour. 


  • Knead to de-gas then return to bowl; cover again for another hour. 


  • Gently knead then divide dough into three equal pieces and roll into strands. Braid as for hair. Let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use stone if desired. 


  • Wash bread with egg wash. Then sprinkle either sesame seeds or poppy seeds.  


  • Bake for 20 minutes, turn bread then continue baking for 20-30 minutes (depending on the size of loaf) until golden brown. 


  • Cool on wire rack. To store, seal in a plastic bag. 


    (Source: Rebecca Watson, from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart, Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I.) 


    Note: Alternatively, use only 1/4 teaspoon yeast and let rise overnight in refrigerator in sealed plastic bag or sealed bowl. The next day, let dough come to room temperature (about 1 to 1 1/2 hours), de-gas gently then let rise again, about an hour. Continue as directed in sixth step.

    Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.