A Pizza Expert’s Perfect Challah
Recipe Roots: New York City
Shared by Scott Wiener
If you spot Scott Wiener in New York City, he’s likely running between pizzerias leading fellow pizza lovers on his popular tours. He’s the type of person who researches old ovens around the city and might pull a can of tomatoes out of his bag to help illustrate a point about what makes a proper pizza.
On certain days, he also travels with a loaf of freshly baked challah from his home in his bag, sharing the loaves with friends or the pizzaioli he visits on his rounds. Each loaf is a gift. His challah baking started after his cousin Jordan’s bar mitzvah in 2013. “It was one of those funny synagogues where you don't read from the Torah,” Scott explains. Instead, Jordan read a report about Jewish bread and gave out recipe cards with the title “Jordan’s Favorite Challah.” Scott took the card and realized he hadn’t baked challah since he was 7 years old. He was, however, already an avid bread baker, exploring what baking could teach him about pizza. (For Scott, everything comes back to pizza.)
A month or so after the bar mitzvah, Scott made Jordan’s recipe. As he continued to bake challah, he tweaked it to achieve the taste and texture he was looking for. “I want it to be eggy and a medium density, the outside shiny and sweet. The feeling of your mouth compressing it, it’s like a warm hug on a cold day after you’ve been shoveling the driveway,” he says.
He isn't certain where Jordan picked up the recipe he shared at his bar mitzvah, but Scott believes he isn’t the first person in his family’s lineage to bake the bread. Both sides of his family are from Eastern Europe, “right in that area between Russia and Poland,” Scott says. So challah, is “very much the type of food that’s in our roots.”
Still, there’s some debate about what makes the perfect challah in his family. Scott’s father “really likes dry challah,” he explains. “So when we are all together, we have to get two loaves. I bake a loaf and we get a [dry] loaf for him.”
As for the pizzeria staff he visits on his rounds, the challah is a treasured gift. “The Italians love the sweet bread — and to schmear Nutella on it,” Scott adds. While Rosh Hashanah traditionally calls for honey, we will follow their lead next month when the new year arrives and schmear Nutella on our challah.
The Pizza Guy's Round Challah
Scott always bakes two loaves at once, leaving one for his home and another for a friend or pizzaioli. You can keep both for yourself or give one as a gift.
Makes: Two medium round challahs
Total Time: 45 minutes, plus 2 hour proofing time
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
2½ teaspoons (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1⅓ cups water, heated to 115º
¼ cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
9 egg yolks
2 egg whites, beaten
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. In a large bowl, whisk together the water, vegetable oil and egg yolks.
2. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until a shaggy dough forms, 1-2 minutes. Then, transfer to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, 8 to 10 minutes. The dough can be slightly tacky, but not sticky. If the dough is sticky, lightly sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour at a time and continue kneading until the dough is no longer sticky.
3. Transfer to a lightly greased bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let sit in a warm area until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Divide the dough into 8 equal-sized balls. Place on a lightly floured work surface and cover with a damp towel. Let sit for 30 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 350º and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll each ball of dough into a 12-inch rope, about 1 1/2 inches thick.
6. Take 4 ropes of dough and arrange in a lattice to look like a hashtag, with each rope going over and under one another. Take the ends of 2 non-parallel, adjacent ropes and cross them to place the lower rope over the higher rope. Repeat this process all around the challah, then tuck the ends underneath.
7. Place the challah on a baking sheet and brush with some of the egg white, then garnish with half of the sesame seeds. Repeat this process to make a second challah. Let both rise until the dough is proofed (it doesn't spring back immediately when touched), 30 minutes.
8. Bake until the challahs are golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before serving.