Grandma's Challah Gets Perfected With a Pastry Chef's Know-how

Alex Levin grew up baking with his grandmother on New York's Upper East Side. Now, he's applied his professional baking skills to make the best challah you might taste.

Alex Levin's Challah.
Alex Levin

When pastry chef Alex Levin was 4 years old, his grandmother would pick him up from nursery school on New York’s Upper East Side and bring him to her apartment, where they would prepare Shabbat dinner together. “Each week, she allowed me to work on different projects. But every week, the making challah was the activity we did together,” Alex told me in an email exchange earlier this week. “She instilled a strong love of baking into the heart of a child, while cultivating a particularly strong love and bond between the two of us in the process.”

Alex’s grandmother, Martha Hadassah Nadich, was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Jewish Russian immigrants. Her father, Menachem Ribalow, was the founder and editor of the first Hebrew weekly in America, Hadoar. She graduated from Hunter College and had a degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Martha served as executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, where she met her husband, Rabbi Judah Nadich.

Rabbi Nadich was born in Baltimore in 1912. In 1942, after graduating from City college and Columbia University, he enlisted to the army, where he later became the senior Jewish chaplain in Europe. In 1945 Judah Nadich became a Jewish advisor to Dwight Eisenhower, advising him on the hundreds of thousands of survivors in displaced persons camps in conditions that he found incomprehensible. He helped convince Eisenhower to improve the conditions in the camps and reverse the Allies’ policy of requiring survivors to return to their homeland.

Nadich then went on to serve as a rabbi of conservative synagogues in Brookline, Massachutsetts, before moving to Park Avenue Synagogue, where he served for 30 years, until 1987. He was also the president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

With such background, there’s no surprise that those Shabbat dinners at the grandparents’ apartment were filled not only with family and friends but also with congregation members, world leaders, politicians and writers, all enjoying the food that bright-eyed Alex helped prepare.

Alex Levin with grandparents Martha Hadassah and Rabbi Judah Nadich.
Photo courtesy of Alex Levin

As a good Jewish boy, Alex went to school at Ramaz, an Upper East Side modern Orthodox day school. He then graduated from Yale, worked on Wall Street and was planning on a career in finance and management when a personal “aha!” moment drove him to change course dramatically and enlist to the Culinary Institute of America. He graduated at the top of his class.

Alex then trained at high-end restaurants such as Jean Georges and Cafe Boulud, as well as Israeli owned Breads Bakery. He is now the executive pastry chef at the acclaimed Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C., where his fabulous deconstructed desserts have earned him a devoted local following.

At this point in the story I need to disclose that handsome, soft-spoken Alex is my dear friend. At a recent party I hosted, he brought his homemade challah to share, a challah that everyone declared the best they'd ever tried. His recipe goes back to the days when he cooked for Shabbat with his beloved grandmother.

“Savta [grandmother in Hebrew] never really used a recipe for her challah, and as a chef I decided to write down exactly what I had memorized after making it together,” Alex said. “I applied some knowledge of bread baking that I gathered from my background as a chef and converted the recipe to ‘baker's percentage.’”

The delicious and easy to follow recipe, said Alex, “combines the best of her baking with my education as a chef.”

Alex Levin.
Sean Smith

Alex Levin’s challah

1.    SAF Instant yeast can be purchased on amazon.com. It is the same as rapid rise yeast, but different than active dry yeast that’s sold in supermarkets. Active dry yeast is an unreliable substitute for this recipe.

2.    If you do not have a stand mixer, scale the recipe down to 2/3 of the weight and make 3 loaves rather than 4.

Yields 4 medium challahs

Ingredients

Dough:
1650 grams (13 3/4 cups) bread flour
30 grams (5 teaspoons) fine sea salt
21 grams (3 envelopes) instant yeast
690 grams (3 cups) water or milk
360 grams  (1 cup + 1 tablespoon) honey
360 grams (3 sticks + 2 teaspoons) soft butter or 360 grams (1 1/2 cups + 2 teaspoons) oil
225 grams eggs (about 4 1/2 large eggs)
    
Egg Wash:    
100 grams (2 large) egg 
50 grams (2 1/2) yolks of large eggs
50 grams (3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) water 
2 pinches salt
50 to 100 grams (2 1/2 to 5 tablespoons) honey
    
Garnish:    
Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, fennel pollen, Maldon sea salt

Necessary Tools:
Kitchen Aid Professional 6-quart stand mixer, oven with space for 2 half-sheet (46-by-33 centimeter) baking pans

Directions:

1. Combine flour, salt and instant yeast in large bowl. Mix well.

2. Combine water or milk, honey and eggs into the bowl of a 6-quart stand mixer. If using oil and not butter, add it now.

3. Pour dry ingredients over wet. If using butter and not oil, add it now.

4. Using the dough hook, mix for 2-3 minutes on lowest speed until all of the dough comes together. Scrape the bowl on the sides and bottom with a spatula or plastic bowl scraper, then mix on low speed for 2 more minutes. The dough will seem very wet, but don’t be tempted to add any more flour.

5. Holding the bowl with your hands, turn the mixer to medium speed and mix aggressively until the dough detaches from the bottom of the bowl. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. At this point, the dough will not feel as wet.

6. Place the dough in a large metal bowl that has been coated with Pam spray or oil, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise for 45-60 minutes in a warm spot in the kitchen, or until the dough has doubled in size. Remove the plastic wrap, and punch the dough down. Reseal with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 more minutes.

7. Meanwhile, make the egg wash by combining all ingredients and blending very well. Add enough honey until the egg wash is sweet (50-100 grams, based on your preference).

8. Once the dough has finished rising, weigh the dough on a kitchen scale. To make 4 medium-sized loaves with 3 strands, divide the dough evenly into 12 strands.

9. Using no flour to shape the strands, flatten each piece roughly into a rectangle. From top to bottom, roll and pinch the dough tightly, turning each rectangle into a fat strand. Repeat with all the pieces. Then invert the strands, flatten and repeat the shaping process. Now using a small amount of flour, roll each strand out until 30-35 centimeters (12-14 inches) long. Make sure each piece is even.

10. Braid simply with three strands per loaf. Pinch and tuck the ends under the loaf.

11. Place two loaves on a parchment-lined half sheet pan, brush lightly with egg wash, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30-45 minutes. Brush with egg wash a second time, and sprinkle with garnishes (generously with seeds, lightly with salt).

12. Meanwhile, preheat the ovens to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius). When oven is hot, place pans in the oven for 20 minutes, then brush with egg wash one final time. Rotate the trays in the oven and bake another 20-30 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the middle of each challah reads 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit).

13. Remove challah from oven, and carefully place on a wire rack to cool. Serve or freeze once cool. To serve a frozen loaf, let the bread thaw completely and heat in the oven for 15 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit (163 degrees Celsius).