Typically, the fashion designer Batsheva Hay concedes, she wouldn’t devote four hours to baking any dish in her Upper West Side kitchen. She enjoys cooking, yes, but much of her culinary repertoire — including a no-fuss stovetop brisket — can be prepared relatively quickly. Assembling a loaf of challah, the briochelike Jewish bread coated with a soft brown egg wash and braided in a classic plait, is another undertaking entirely. There’s the physically demanding kneading. The hour of rising. The punching of the dough (arm workout No. 2). Another half-hour of rising. A small reprieve for the fun part — braiding the dough and adding toppings to create something either herby or extra sweet — followed by a third, hourlong rise. Only then does the loaf make it into the oven.
But Hay’s favorite challah recipe — the one that, after almost a decade of trial and error with other versions, she has crowned the best — is well worth the substantial time commitment. For one, store-bought challah is rarely an appealing option; Orwashers in Manhattan, Hay admits, makes a pretty decent one, but most supermarket loaves don’t cut it. And among all the homemade challahs Hay has tried, this rendition, adapted from that of the Jewish American cooking icon Joan Nathan, has just the right amount of rich, indulgent egginess. “It’s really kind of foolproof,” Hay says. “I think the eggs are the key.”
Challah is, as in many Jewish households, a staple of her family’s Shabbat dinner. She bakes three loaves almost every week — two for Friday night, and an extra for lunch on Saturday — sometimes freezing an extra ball of dough to use the following Friday. And while her children usually help (Ruth, 8, and Solomon, 6, are both within the idealchallah-decorating, dough-punching age bracket), it’s no small feat, particularly on top of running her namesake clothing line, Batsheva. (The brand’s current projects include another collaborative collection, due in May, with the British brand Laura Ashley that will again combine the latter’s classic floral prints with Hay’s signature flowy, high-necked silhouettes, inspired in part by the traditional styles worn by some Jewish women.) But the recipe still lends itself to maintaining a reasonable work-life balance: “If you have four hours where you’re going to be home,” Hay says, “even if it’s on a Sunday, it is one of those things — you can mix it up and let it rise while you answer some emails, you know?”
Hay wears a Victoria housedress from her namesake clothing line. The designer has another collaborative collection with the British brand Laura Ashley due in May.Credit…Aundre Larrow
Challah remains an essential element on Hay’s table during Hanukkah, which, as a child growing up in a more secular Jewish household in Queens, she cherished. (“It was like Jewish Christmas. You got a lot of presents.”) It’s stayedher favorite, even as she’s become more observant of Orthodox traditions as an adult — Hanukkah doesn’t hold as much religious importance as some other Jewish holidays — and most years she strives to stick to the holiday’s typical menu, with varying levels of success. “I’ve tried making jelly doughnuts and they end up being really sad,” she says, but store-bought versions do tend to make an appearance, along with latkes and gelt. As for her Hanukkah challah, she opts for a round braid, as is customaryfor special occasions, and as always, she’s partial to the sweeter add-ons like cinnamon sugar or chocolate chips — or, to appease her kids, the raisin fans of the family, “sometimes I’ll do cinnamon and raisin, like a bagel kind of vibe,” she says. But either option is acceptable for the same reason those four hours of baking are truly worth it: The leftovers can be used the next morning to make the perfect French toast.
Batsheva Hay’s Take on Joan Nathan’s Challah
(Apart from Hay’s additions, which are italicized, the below is a reproduction of the original recipe, which can also be found at New York Times Cooking.)
Makes 2 loaves
3 ¾ teaspoons active dry yeast (about 1 ½ packages)
1 tablespoon plus ½ cup granulated sugar
1 ¾ cups lukewarm water
½ cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon table salt
8 to 8 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained
1 large egg
Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
1. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and the tablespoon of sugar in the lukewarm water; set aside for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, or until a bit foamy.
2. Whisk the oil into the mixture, then beat in the 4 eggs, one at a time, with the remaining ½ cup of sugar and the salt. Gradually add flour. When the dough holds together, it’s ready for kneading.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out the bowl and grease it, then return the dough to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
4. Split the dough into two balls, and mix in the raisins if using. Braid the dough. (Nathan creates a six-strand braid, while Hay prefers three strands.) For a straight loaf, tuck the ends underneath the braid. For a circular loaf, twist the braidinto a circle, pinching the ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place the braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
5. Beat the remaining egg and brush it on the loaves. Let them rise for another hour. Add any toppings — cinnamon and sugar, fenugreek and zaatar are all options.
6. If baking immediately, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and brush the loaves again. Bake the loaves in the middle of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool the loaves on a rack, and enjoy!