Adventures of a Challah Malcontent
Sourdough challah is a familiar subject on this site, and there have been lots of recipes discussed and shared, with Maggie Glezer's probably in the lead. My only reason for revisiting the theme is that my version of challah, a sourdough adaptation of Jeffrey Hamelman's straight-dough recipe in Bread, is a bit away from the mainstream. To be blunt, nearly everyone who tastes my challah—thankfully, not my family—doesn't know what to make of it at best.
Here in Australia, most commercial and home-baked challahs seem to use a lot of what we call plain flour, a type designed for baking cakes and biscuits with gluten normally sitting in the 10% range. They're also often very sweet and heavily yeasted. The result is a puffy, cakey loaf that goes stale after two or three days and then makes sensational French toast. My impression is that challahs worldwide generally follow a similar pattern.
I was raised on this style of challah, and never liked it much except as French toast. The texture was too flabby and, despite my Polish-Jewish ancestry, I found the sweetness cloying. So when I started baking bread a few years ago, finding a challah recipe that worked for me was a priority.
Challah has become the bread I bake most often, a couple of loaves usually every two or three weeks. When I started out, I was really intimidated by the enriched dough, which at first always came out too sticky, and above all by the braiding (which remains a challenge, as you can see). Although I found the Hamelman recipe fairly early on, its main appeal was the detailed guidance on method. Even then, I could see it wasn't very sweet, with 8% sugar compared to a minimum 12% (and sometimes honey as well) just about everywhere else. I used to add some sugar because the proportion in the recipe seemed unnaturally low, even to my sweetness-averse palate. It was only after I began baking it regularly that I realised the Hamelman recipe was the answer to my discontent with mainstream challahs.
Mr Hamelman is entitled to his royalties, so I'm not going to pass on his detailed formula. The key aspects for me include how workable the dough is for kneading and braiding, and the low level of sugar, that I quickly learned to embrace. But above all, he specifies bread flour rather than lower-gluten alternatives, to the point of including some high-gluten flour, which isn't really available in Australia. The recipe makes for the kind of challah I was looking for: bread rather than a modified cake.
The only problem with it is that it's still a straight dough, and I'm into sourdough. For a long time, I tried adapting it by sticking to the ingredients and much of the technique, but taking over the sourdough components from Maggie Glezer's recipe, specifically 25% pre-fermented flour and proofing for five hours. The trouble with this approach is that the challah ends up noticeably sour. I like sourness in cucumbers, but challah is no pickle.
For a while, my remedy was to add two or three grams of instant yeast and sharply reduce the proofing period. Then I found I could go to a 20% pre-ferment and make some other adjustments and produce a challah without any obvious sourness. Recently, even the instant yeast has gone and my challah is now back to being a pure sourdough, slightly sweet but not sour.
For yesterday's bake, I made a few more changes more or less on a whim. Whether because of these or other factors, I'm very happy with the challah that came out of the oven. Yes, the air holes were too irregular and the braids hadn't fused perfectly, but the taste and the texture are where I want to be. Here's the crumb:
The ingredient formula is almost identical to the one in Bread (except that the percentage of eggs is slightly higher), as is a lot of the technique. The main features of the sourdough method I've developed through trial and error are:
- A stiff levain at 60% hydration built on 20% of sourdough culture also hydrated at 60%.
- Bulk fermentation at room temperature or slightly above for 100 minutes, including a light fold half-way through.
- Fridge-retardation in bulk for about 18 hours.
- The shaped loaves are proofed at room temperature for between 90 minutes and two hours (I'm a slow braider, so the first loaf finished tends to get the full two hours). I don't look for a rise of more than 50-75%. In my experience, oven spring is better with a shorter proof.
Well, most likely this isn't the kind of challah that many people will like. As I've discovered, the stereotype is too deeply entrenched in the challah-eating consciousness. Why bother with a sourdough that takes two fairly busy days to prepare? It's not as voluminous, not as sweet, not as differentiated from ordinary bread. You even have to wait a week or more for it to stale enough to make a satisfactory French toast.
But if you happen to share my discontent with mainstream challah, I hope my approach gives you something, so to speak, to chew on...