The High Challah-days are upon us, and as the name suggests, there would be no festivities without a big, braided loaf for sharing. And while I did not grow up Jewish, for the past four years I have been privy to many High Holiday celebrations (thanks, Harry and family). And honestly, being of Polish descent, I find there are some striking similarities.
What Jews call latkes, we call placki. Blintzes are nalesniki. And, of course, challah is nothing more extraordinary than the chałka I grew up on. Though, the chałka I ate was more frequently than not glazed, and studded with raisins, a favorite Polish dessert and bread addition I will never understand. Even as someone who can expound on the many virtues of raisins (so sweet, so earthy, so portable), I will never comprehend why my fellow Poles insist on putting them in any and all desserts, from cheesecake to tiramisu.
Let’s get back to this post’s challah, which no raisin has ever been or will be near. Which is not to say that it is plain! It is far from it: full of a fragrant fig spread with just a little bit of a fresh black pepper bite, moist and fruity from extra-virgin olive oil, and nicely cut by flaky Maldon salt. Yet, as the first challah I have ever made, I found it easy enough to make and highly rewarding for the moderate amount of effort required to assemble it. The round loaf this recipe yields is rather large, but I would still recommend doubling the recipe, as it goes very quickly. And did I mention how good it is as french toast, particularly if you mix in some cinnamon with the egg? Perfection!
Fig and Olive Oil Challah
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 1 loaf
For the filling:
1 cup dried figs, stems removed, chopped
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 teaspoon Maldon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
For the dough:
1 package (0.25 ounces) active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1/4 cup and 1 teaspoon honey (preferably wildflower)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons Maldon salt
4 cups flour
For the wash:
1 large egg
You can prepare the filling a day or two beforehand to save time. Place all the ingredients in medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and then simmer, stirring occasionally, until the figs have significantly softened. This should take about ten minutes. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Let the mixture cool somewhat, and then run through a food processor until the mixture has turned into a paste. Set aside until ready to prepare the challah. Store in an airtight container in the fridge if making the filling in advance.
For the dough, begin by whisking together the yeast, water, and 1 teaspoon of the honey. Let it stand until it is foaming. In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the remaining honey, olive oil, and eggs. Once they are well-combined, add the salt and flour, just until the dough comes together. Use your hands to make the dough into a ball, and place in a bowl that has been coated with olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for about an hour, until it has doubled in size.
To prepare the challah, divide the dough in two halves. Roll out one of the halves to more or less resemble a rectangle. Coat the rolled out dough with half of the fig spread. Beginning with a long end of the rolled-out dough, start rolling it tightly. Once you have rolled the whole piece of dough, stretch the dough until it is about 2 to 3 feet long, as far as it will stretch without ripping, then cut it in half so you have two “ropes.” Repeat this process with the second half of dough, so that now you have 4 ropes.
To weave the challah, watch this video and follow the directions for a 4-rope round. Seriously, you didn’t think I was going to write those out, did you?
When you have woven your challah, bet the egg, and coat some of the egg onto the challah. Set the challah aside for about an hour, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, allowing it to grow.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat the challah with the remaining egg wash, and sprinkle generously with Maldon salt. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the challah approaches a dark brown color. Let it cool completely before storing it. Or, devour as soon as possible.