I pinched this recipe from Deb Perelman of www.smittenkitchen.com, which has a lot of chat and ideas about Jewish (and other) cooking. She has also published two cookbooks, and I recommend them highly! On the webpage for this particular recipe, she also has pictures and a description of how to braid this circular loaf – it’s actually pretty easy once you get the concept. The page is here: https://smittenkitchen.com/2012/09/fig-olive-oil-and-sea-salt-challah/
For some reason, I’ve never made challah before, so this was a fun experiment for me, and my taste-tester (Michael) approved of both form and flavor! Instead of using the fig compote Deb describes below, I used half a jar of fig jam from Trader Joe’s. Oh, and the recipe calls for your oven at 375°; I automatically set mine to 450° because that’s the temperature most breads call for. That’s why it’s a bit darker than necessary, though still tasty. Make sure you set your oven correctly!
This recipe makes one large loaf that serves 16, and takes about four hours to make – more rising time than I’m used to, but definitely worth it.
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet — 1/4 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 teaspoon honey
2/3 cup warm water (110 to 116 degrees F)
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest, or more as desired
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
Few grinds black pepper
1 large egg
Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling; I sprinkled with poppy seeds as well.
To make dough with a stand mixer: Whisk the yeast and 1 teaspoon honey into warm water, and let it stand for a few minutes, until foamy. In a large mixer bowl, combine the yeast mixture with remaining honey, 1/3 cup olive oil, and eggs. Add the salt and flour, and mix until dough begins to hold together. Switch to a dough hook, and run at low speed for 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the dough to an olive-oil coated bowl (or rest the dough briefly on the counter and oil your mixer bowl to use for rising, so that you’ll use fewer dishes), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for one hour, or until almost doubled in size.
To make the dough by hand: Proof the yeast as directed above. Mix the wet ingredients with a whisk, then add the salt and flour. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed. Let rise for one hour, until almost doubled in size.
Meanwhile, make the fig paste: In a small saucepan, combine the figs, zest, water, juice, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the figs are soft and tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Process the fig mixture in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Set aside to cool. [Alternatively, use fig jam from Trader Joe’s seasoned with a little salt and pepper.]
Insert figs: After your dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Roll the first half of the dough into a wide and totally imperfect rectangle (really, the shape doesn’t matter). Spread half the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge. Roll the dough into a long, tight log, trapping the filling within. Then gently stretch the log as wide as feels comfortable (I take mine to my max counter width, a pathetic three feet), and divide it in half. Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling.
Weave your challah: Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move the leg to their right — i.e., jumping it. Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round.
Transfer the dough to a parchment-covered heavy baking sheet, or, if you’ll be using a bread stone, a baker’s peel. Beat the egg until smooth, and brush over the challah. Let challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 375°F. [Note: I’m using to baking bread at 450°, so make sure you set the right temperature!]
Bake your loaf: Before baking, brush loaf one more time with egg wash and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. It should be beautifully bronzed; if yours starts getting too dark too quickly, cover it with foil for the remainder of the baking time. The very best way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer — the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees.
Cool loaf on a rack before serving. Or, well, good luck with that.
[Because this challah contains olive oil, it will actually stay fresh longer than most white breads. Normally storage is not a problem, even though it’s a large loaf. I usually distribute portions to my neighborhood bread group, but IF any is left over, it does freeze pretty well. Wrap two slices in plastic wrap, then pop it in a ZipLok bag. Bring it up to room temperature before making into the very best French toast you can possibly imagine!]