Yogurt Challah

Growing up in Israel, I had challah every Friday for Shabbat and on most days in between. After trying countless recipes, I discovered my favorite in baker Uri Scheft’s brilliant book Breaking Breads. He figured out the perfect proportions, so why reinvent it when he graciously let me share his formula here? I add labne to make the dough even richer, while olive oil lends a savory flavor. If you want a dairy-free dough, omit the labne. What you can’t leave out are spices. They deliver both extra flavor and texture. Nowadays, I bake challah every week with my sons, switching up the seasonings and shapes throughout the year.

Recipe by Lior Lev Sercarz, from “Mastering Spice” by Lior Lev Sercarz

Makes 2 9-inch loaves

Make ahead:

The baked challah can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Thaw before reheating it in the oven or cutting slices and toasting.

Ingredients

Spice Blend
21⁄2 teaspoons nigella seeds (7 grams)
11⁄2 teaspoons ground turmeric (3 grams)

Mix together the nigella seeds and turmeric.

Challah
1 cup lukewarm water (210 grams)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (11 grams)
1⁄4 cup sugar (50 grams)
3 3⁄4 cups all-purpose flour (500 grams)*
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (35 grams), plus more for the bowl
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon labne or plain whole milk Greek yogurt (25 grams)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (4 grams)
2 large eggs (120 grams), at room temperature
1⁄4 cup white sesame seeds, preferably unhulled (40 grams), for sprinkling

* please note that the printed recipe in Mastering Spice has an error. 3 3/4 cups is the correct quantity of flour, not 2 3/4 as stated in the book. The weight is correct in both cases.

Directions

1. To make the challah: Whisk the warm water, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of the sugar (5 grams) in a medium bowl. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

2. Combine the flour, oil, labne, salt, 1 of the eggs, the spice blend, yeast mixture, and the remaining sugar (45 grams) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed, scraping the bowl occasionally, until the dough comes together in a firm, stretchy mass, about 7 minutes.

3. Turn out onto a clean work surface and knead to form a tight ball,about 2 minutes. Lightly oil the mixer bowl, return the dough to it, and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

4. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a clean unfloured work surface and divide it into six equal pieces (about 108 grams each). Roll each into a 12-inch-long rope, pressing and roll- ing the ends to taper them.

5. Place two ropes parallel to each other, spacing them 3 inches apart. Cross the ropes once, leaving an inch free at the ends. Lay a third rope over the point at which the others cross. Braid the three ropes, tucking in the ends. Repeat with the remaining three ropes to form a second loaf. Transfer both braids to the prepared pan, spaced at least 5 inches apart. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until puffed and the volume increases by about a third, about 45 minutes.

6. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. Beat the remaining egg with a few drops of water and gently brush it over the loaves to lightly coat. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

7. Bake until browned and well risen, 19 to 20 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Variation

smoky cheddar challah with pepitas

Challah tends to be on the sweet side, but here I make it savory by seasoning the dough with ground cumin and smoked paprika. Whole mustard seeds and Cheddar cheese lace the loaves, delivering savory notes with their respective crunchiness and creaminess.

SPICE BLEND
3⁄4 teaspoon cumin seeds (2 grams)
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds (10 grams)
1 teaspoon pimentón (smoked paprika; 3 grams)
Finely grind the cumin and immediately mix it with the whole mustard seeds and pimentón. Use this spice blend instead of the main spice blend in the challah recipe.

Follow the challah recipe, adding 1⁄2 cup grated Cheddar cheese (112 grams) at the end of step 2, kneading until everything is evenly distributed.

In step 7, substitute 1⁄2 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds; 68 grams) for the sesame seeds.