Challah, an Easter Tradition

Easter TableThe first time I made challah (pronounced “hal-lah,” with what sounds like panting as you start the word), I felt as if I had become a real baker. The braided loaves looked perfect to my novice eye. After baking nearly a hundred loaves of challah over the past forty-three years, however, I now recognize that I am just someone who likes to eat and bakes bread that tastes good whether it looks perfect or not.

Sometimes my loaves of challah are big at one end and small at the other, or one loaf is obviously larger, or there may be way too many poppy seeds at one spot. Picky, picky, picky. But my challah always gets devoured at our Easter table and the two-day-old bread makes wonderful French toast.

Challah originated with the Hebrews, and the name comes from a Biblical ordinance, “hafrashat challah,” which commanded the housewife to separate the challah, a portion of the dough she was making, to share with the priest of the temple. Today, many Jewish women symbolically observe this custom by removing a small ball of dough before forming the loaves. Instead of taking the challah to their local rabbi, however, they now usually burn it over a flame or dispose of it in some other way.

Challah is now used to refer to the bread itself, which is usually made for Sabbath dinners. I first tasted challah at the University of Wisconsin when my Jewish roommate brought back a loaf from his home in Milwaukee. Memories of those beautiful loaves motivated me to make our own after we bought a copy of Beard on Bread.

I use James Beard’s recipe with only a couple of small changes. The bread always turns out and our family enjoys it as one of the two breads we have at our Easter Dinner Table. The second is Hot Cross Buns, which Jerri started making before I made my first loaf of challah. Hot Cross Buns are a slightly sweet spicy bun with a cross of frosting on top of them. They have long been served on Good Friday to remind Christians of the crucifixion, but we enjoy them over the entire weekend.

It’s one way that we recognize the connection of Judaism and Christianity at our holiday table. You might come to value the same tradition in your home.


4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water
1/4 tsp. sugar
1 T sugar
1 T sea salt
3 T butter
3 large eggs
5 to 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
Poppy seeds


Always start bread baking by scrubbing your hands. You will be kneading dough.

Begin by melting the butter and letting it cool while you heat a cup and a third of water. When a drop of water on the inside of your wrist feels warm but not hot, pour the water into a large mixing bowl. Stir in four teaspoons of yeast and the quarter teaspoon of sugar and allow the yeast to proof. When bubbles begin to form on the surface of the water, the yeast has been proofed. If no bubbles form, hot water may have killed the yeast or the yeast may no longer be viable. Throw it and the water away and start over.

Add the sugar, salt, butter and eggs and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon. Beat a cup of flour into the liquid until you have a smooth batter. Do the same with the next three cups of flour. Add the rest of the flour a half cup at a time until you have a stiff dough.

Sprinkle a work surface generously with flour and turn the dough onto it. Use a spatula or baker’s scraper to turn the dough until the surface is coated with flour, then begin kneading. If you want some guidance on kneading bread dough, Wikihow has an excellent lesson on how to do it.

Knead the dough for eight to ten minutes until it is smooth and elastic, then form it into a ball. Butter the mixing bowl and roll the ball around in it until the surface of the dough is covered with a thin film of butter. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and put the bowl in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in bulk. This can take two hours or even a bit more, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

While the dough is rising, grease a large baking sheet or two smaller sheets, each large enough to hold a fourteen-inch loaf.

Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough a couple of turns while you form it into a log. Cut the log into six equal pieces and roll each piece into a rope about three quarters of an inch in diameter. Lay three ropes on your work surface and braid them into a loaf thirteen or fourteen inches long. Tuck and pinch the ends of the braid together to make a finished loaf and place it on the baking sheet. Make the second loaf and place it about six inches from the first.
?Cover the loaves with a damp tea towel and put them in a warm, draft-free spot. Once they have begun rising again, preheat the oven to 400º.

When the loaves have nearly doubled in bulk, beat an egg yolk with a teaspoon of cold water to make a wash. Gently brush the loaves with the egg wash and sprinkle them with poppy seeds. Put the loaves on the center shelf in the oven and bake them thirty to forty minutes. When an instant read thermometer inserted into the middle of a loaf registers 195º, the bread is done.

Cool the bread on a rack.

NOTES: If you have nice big eggs from hens allowed to run around the yard like ours did when I was a kid, your challah will be a beautiful golden color. With ordinary large eggs from the grocery, the bread will be a lighter gold.

I always bake challah on Saturday afternoon for our Easter dinner. This bread does not hold very well. It is at its best if eaten a few hours after it comes from the oven and is still very good a day later, but on the second day it starts drying out, at which time it becomes an excellent bread for French toast.

I make a point of greasing the bowl with butter, but I usually grease the baking sheet with shortening or cooking spray. My theory is that the butter in the bowl helps flavor the rising dough but that the tiny bit of grease on the baking pan doesn’t have much of an effect on flavor.

Every time I make challah I have to stop to think how to make the braid though it is not difficult. Here is an excellent tutorial.

Liz Waters Poppy Seed Cake and Filling

As I have mentioned before, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, university administrators still believed that students deserved good cooks as well as good teachers. Talented chefs worked with dietitians to design menus that were nutritious and interesting, and teams of skilled cooks turned the plans into gourmet dinners.

But teachers and cooks are human beings, so some were better than others and occasionally even the finest chef stumbles. As an English major, I was taught very early that “Even Homer nods.” However, the chef at Elizabeth Waters, where Jerri was Assistant Head Resident, didn’t nod very often. He created a lot of wonderful dishes that I was privileged to enjoy as Jerri’s guest.

liz-specials-cover-1This is one of them, a dessert that the residents chose for their Liz Specials cookbook in 1965. As you can see from the picture, our copy has been well used, but it still has an honored place on the bookshelf.

The cake is dense but not chewy, and the poppy seeds give it a lot of flavor. The pudding provides a nice contrast.

You have to remember to soak the poppy seed overnight before making the cake, but otherwise, it is simplicity itself to make.

For the cake:
1 cup poppy seeds
1 1/4 cups milk, divided
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 egg whites

For the filling:
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 tsp. salt
2 1/2 T cornstarch
1 T flour
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
1 T butter
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 T powdered sugar


For the cake:

Soak the poppy seeds in three-quarters of a cup of milk overnight in a cool room or the refrigerator.

The next day preheat the oven to 390º and cream the butter and sugar thoroughly. Grease two eight-inch round layer cake pans.

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder gradually into the creamed sugar. Using a wooden spoon, blend the flour into the sugar. The dry ingredients will resemble biscuit mix. Stir in the milk,vanilla and poppy seeds and beat until smooth. The batter will be very stiff.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold the egg whites into the batter. Spread the batter evenly into the cake pans and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes. Test for doneness at twenty-five minutes by inserting a toothpick near the center of a cake. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done.

Take the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool for an hour. Remove the cakes from the pans, set one upside down on a cake plate and the other right side up on waxed paper.

For the filling:
It is easiest to make the filling in a double boiler. Put water in the bottom of the double boiler, put the milk into the upper pan and warm the milk until it is lukewarm. Mix together the sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt and whisk it into the warm milk. Continue heating the milk, stirring often, until it begins to thicken. Cover and cook another three minutes.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl until they are lemon yellow, then whisk a half cup of the hot mixture very gradually into the beaten yolks and whisk the yolks back into the pudding. Cover, return the double boiler to the heat and cook for three minutes.

Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in the butter, vanilla and chopped nuts.

Let the pudding cool completely, then spread a layer of the pudding on the cake you had put on a plate. Top the pudding with the second cake and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Slice and serve.

NOTES: You can omit the nuts from the pudding, but the crunchiness is pleasant. If the pudding is too warm or you put too thick a layer of it on the cake, pudding will run down the sides. The cake will still be delicious and look like a work of freeform art.

You may have some pudding left over after you put a nice layer on the cake. As Jerri says, “It must be hard cutting a recipe down to something for a family from enough to serve three hundred people.” The leftover pudding is delicious. Take it from one who knows.

Incidentally, if you don’t have any cake flour, the standard substitute is one cup less two tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Works every time.

This is the third recipe from Liz Specials that I have shared on Courage in the Kitchen. You might want to try the Thousand Island Dressing and the Manhattan Meat Rolls too.

Didi found that the Liz Specials cookbook has been digitized and is available here
Have fun with some more great recipes!