Challah Bread

I grew up with Challah Bread, not because I grew up Jewish (although everyone thought I was with the name Rachel, the way I look, and a younger brother named David), but because we adopted grandparents who had connections at the Jewish Community Center. It’s a long story, worth the telling, and in homage to this grand couple, this Sabbath the bread is dedicated to Barbara and Stanley Smith of Portland, Oregon.


Also to my mother, whose birthday we celebrate TODAY! Happy 40th, MA!

Challah Bread

3-3¼ cups (15-16¼ oz.) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter
¼ cup sugar
1¼ tsp. salt
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk (white reserved for egg wash)
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
½ cup water, at room temperature

For the egg wash:
1 large egg white
1 tbsp. water

For topping:
1 tsp. poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the eggs, egg yolk, melted butter, and ½ cup of the water.  Stir to combine.  Mix in the flour, yeast, sugar and salt just until the dough comes together.  Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed for about 5 minutes until the dough forms a ball and is tacky but not sticky (adding the remaining ¼ cup of flour gradually if needed.)

In a small bowl, whisk together the reserved egg white for the egg wash with the water.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled large bowl, turning to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1½-2 hours.  Gently press down the dough to deflate it, re-cover, and let rise again until doubled in size, about 40-60 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Divide into two pieces, with one roughly half the size of the other (9 and 18 oz. by weight.)  Divide the large piece into three equal pieces and roll each into a 16-inch long rope.




Line all three pieces up alongside each other and pinch the pieces together at one end.  From the closed end, braid the pieces together and pinch together at the opposite end.  Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.  Divide the remaining smaller piece of dough into three equal pieces and roll each into a 16-inch long rope.  Line them up and braid as before, pinching the ends together.  Brush some of the egg wash onto the top of the larger braid, and then set the smaller braid on top.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes, or until the loaf has puffed up and increased in size by about a third.


With an oven rack in lower-middle position, preheat the oven to 375˚ F.  Brush the loaf with the remaining egg wash and sprinkle lightly with poppy or sesame seeds (if using).


Bake the loaf for 30-40 minutes, or until it is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the side of the loaf reads 190˚ F.  Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Source: adapted from Baking Illustrated

Obviously 5 stars. Here’s the story about Stan and Barb:

I once thought that one became a grandparent by growing large. The Grand Canyon is a large canyon. A grandparent is a large parent.

“No, a grandparent is a parent of your parent, and you can only have four, at the most. Ever. Do the math.” the spoiled girl next door said.

At the time she said this, I only had three out of the four, and then went down to two when Grandpa Florus died a few days before my eleventh birthday. It wasn’t fair, we decided, my brother Dave and I. And it would probably disrupt our proper development, not having a full set. We had already lost several pets: the kindergarten class hamster, Flower, choked to death on a Barbie shoe on my watch; Dave’s bird, Fred, crushed its skull at full speed against our television screen, a false window. We didn’t have many more chances to be normal as it was.

Scanning our lives for possible replacements, we decided that Stanley and Barbara Smith were the best candidates. Church-going folk, they came to family camp every year with their Skyline Nomad trailer, had two miniature schnauzers, Heidi and Lily, well-groomed, grew their own vegetables, and made their own honey. Stanley carved baseball players in balsa wood and went to the shooting range, Barbara did crossword puzzles to completion and knit blue sweaters. There weren’t any children in their lawn chairs on the Astroturf outside the Nomad.

It seemed like a fitting question at the time. “Hello, Stanley Smith. You see, two of our grandparents are dead, the others live far away, and you and Barbara don’t have any kids. You got interesting projects going on at your house, like riding motorcycles and charming bees, and we were hoping, maybe you’d consider adopting me and Rachel for grandchildren?”

Stanley, with his red round face, Navy tattoos on leathered arms, and gold capped front teeth, gleamed like a shaft of sun.

“Of course, David! Ha ha! What a thing to ask!”

Later, he told the whole church what my brother had said, and though my face turned red, I was happy and pig-tailed. Stanley had tears in his eyes as he choked on his words, and everyone seemed to understand more about it than we did. They mm-hmmed and clapped. Barbara was a quiet woman, but she smiled from the pew, and nodded, her eyes glistening too.

Stanley and Barbara were grand to us. Better than their word, they sat through soccer games and school plays, took us on bike rides and motorcycle rides; we spent hours warming ourselves in front of their woodstove with plates of cookies. Kids brag about their old people like the middle aged boast of their children. Stanley flew planes and raced street bikes, Barbara knew how to program computers. We always had the one up. Our hearts burned with pride.

David and I grew up. We moved away. Stanley and Barbara sent their love, from afar, and we carried with us the grand lesson that it was Okay to ask for love and adoption when you feel yourself coming up short. We love you, Stan and Barb, and I just had to challah it from the rooftops.

8 thoughts on “Challah Bread

  1. Rachel…how lovely of you to tell the story of Stan and Barb and our great fortune when Heaven’s gate opened and they fell right into our lives…We love them so. They are still cool and are showing us how to do life! And, darling, thank you for the birthday wishes…I’m so grateful and blessed to be 59…59…not 40:-)

  2. What an honor to be remembered on your ‘daily bread’. It brought back many good memories.You & Dave were & ARE still GRAND children. Beautiful bread Rachel! We are impressed with your culinary & journalist skills. Love from Granny & Grandpa Smith

    1. I will say my challah doesn’t taste as good as yours, but then again, nostalgia has it’s own special flavor. Love you too

  3. Oh my gosh, what an incredibly beautiful story, both on the level of your bond with Barbara and Stanley, and that of the broader lessons about love and family that we can all draw from it. Thank you so much for sharing this with the world. I am overjoyed that all you wonderful people found each other!

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