Whole Wheat Challah with Brown Sugar

Challah is a braided egg bread with a long tradition in Jewish history. While the quintessential challah is made with white flour, this version uses whole wheat flour, brown sugar, and ground flax seed to add subtle nutty sweetness and heavenly texture.

Every Jewish family has their own revered recipe for challah, which usually consists of white flour, eggs, water, oil, yeast, salt, and a small amount of sugar. What differentiates challah from “regular” bread is the use of egg, which yields a denser (and more flavorful) bread. Additionally, in Jewish households, challah is almost never baked in a loaf pan like most bread loafs; it is instead braided in three, four, five, or six strand loafs, braided rounds, braided rolls, and the like.

Because of Jewish tradition (which requires that two loaves of bread be on the Shabbat table), challah recipes nearly always make two loaves of bread. Two large loaves. Feel free to cut the recipe in half, or freeze the second loaf like I do.

On the subject of flour: I used a 50/50 combination of King Arthur Whole Wheat flour and all-purpose flour. You can use bread flour… if you want. I don’t have bread flour lying around, but if you do, go for it. Do NOT think you’re being healthy and decide to use 100% whole wheat flour. It’s heavier than white flour, and won’t rise as much, leaving you with an ultra-heavy, ultra-dense lump of dough. Don’t do it. However, feel free to use alternative brown flours instead of whole wheat—oat, rye, rice—will all do.

Speaking of, let’s talk about flax seed. It’s easy to find in the health food section of your grocery store. Buy flax seed and grind it yourself—flax meal spoils quickly. You can omit it if you want, but it really gives the bread an amazing texture, plus it’s healthy for you! (And if you’re wondering what the hell to do with the rest of the flax seed you have lying around, don’t worry. You can literally put a tablespoon of the stuff in everything—smoothies, stir-fry, oatmeal, soups, salads, whatever. It has a super mild nutty taste.)

And by the way… I’ve made more loaves of challah than I can count, and these were the best I’ve ever tasted—others’ challah included.

(Adapted from The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur)

  • 3 tablespoons/1.5 packets instant dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/3 cups warm milk/soy milk/water (not hot!)
  • 7 tablespoons melted butter (or 1/2 cup vegetable oil)
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup flax meal (appx. 3 heaping tablespoons of flax seeds before grinding) (p.s. you can use up to 1/2 cup of flax meal if you want to! it’s not a flour substitute, however)
  • 1 tbl kosher salt
  • 6-7 cups of 50/50 whole wheat/white flour mixture

Proof yeast in a large mixing bowl with the warm water and a small pinch of sugar. Wait 3-5 minutes until yeast is frothy, and then add eggs, milk, and melted butter, and mix until just combined. Add brown sugar, flax meal, and salt, and mix until combined. One cup at a time, add flour, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms into a dough. Transfer the dough onto a floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes, or until dough is soft and elastic. This will take longer than you’re used to if you often bake bread, but this is simply because of the whole wheat. Work in two batches if you need to; this is a lot of dough.

Move the ball of dough into a greased bowl (I spray mine with cooking spray and—the bowl you used to mix it in will work fine as long as it’s greased up), grease the dough itself (not too much! cooking spray! I laud the use of cooking spray!), cover with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel, and set in a warm place to rise, about 2 hours.

When that monster dough has risen, DO NOT PUNCH IT DOWN. Just gently pull it out of the bowl and set it on the counter. If you’re braiding it, pull the ball into a log shape and divide into 6 pieces for two 3-braid loaves or one 6-braid loaf, or divide into 3 equal parts for standard loaf pans. If braiding, simply roll each portion out into a log roughly 12-14 inches long and braid the pieces together. With this dough I found it helpful to work the dough as little as possible, pulling and stretching it into a log instead of rolling.

Put your braided loaves onto a greased pan (leave room for rising) or your dough into greased loaf pans; cover with plastic wrap again and let rise again, for 1.5 hours.

Preheat your oven to 350F/180C. While the oven is preheating, prepare the egg wash. (This is optional, technically, but VERY traditional.) Whisk one egg together with a small amount (a few tablespoons) of milk or water. (Whatever liquid you used for the bread itself is fine.) Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash over the bread, sprinkle sesame seeds or poppy seeds over it if you wish (totally optional, I generally don’t) and pop it in the oven for 40-50+ minutes, depending on the size of your loaf. (Alton Brown tells me to tell you that when the internal temperature reaches 210F, it’s done. Deep golden brown on top, no bounce back in the middle, and a hollow sound when you thump the bottom on the loaf, works for me. Be careful not to overbake it, though.)

I like to pull the challah out about 20 minutes in and do another egg wash, but that’s up to you.

Enjoy responsibly. I’ve eaten nearly an entire loaf, by myself, in less than 24 hours. It goes amazingly with butter and honey, and with tea, and with coffee, and with spaghetti sauce, and with blackberry jam, and really, go ahead and freeze that second loaf to avoid temptation.