As Shemini Atzeret rolls in tonight, we're ringing in the last of the holiday season. Not to mention that Achrei haChaggim is fast approaching, that time when we get back to the things that, just last week, we were swiftly able to dispense with a glib, yeah yeah, after the holidays. (On the plus side, the kitchen is closed, you're on your own, kid.) A fitting last hurrah? This Tishrei-feeling currant challah with a savory-sweet salted honey crust, the runaway hit of my holiday challah repertoire, which everyone over twelve agrees is the best sweet challah of the season. Everyone under twelve, well, it involves chocolate spread.
So what's the deal with currants?
I know, you are likely enough to have raisins hanging around your pantry, and you're no doubt thinking that nah, what could be that different about currants, especially given the inexplicably bad parking situation at your local Ralph's. Look, it's a fair point. In fact, most currants sold in the US aren't even currants; they're literally small raisins, due to a historical market quirk and several shakes of misinformation. In brief, currants grow on bushes, grapes on vines (pri hagafen and all that), and due to suspected pest infestation of currants in the US in the early 20th century, dried currants were replaced with a small, tart variety of grapes called "Black Corinth," which were dubbed "Zante currants." This, however, is of no concern to you, because the small raisins masquerading as currants are not even a little like raisin raisins in this challah. They are stratospherically better: tart, chewy, and ideally sized for embedding in enriched yeast dough. Get them you must.
About that salted honey crust
Salted honey has not nearly gotten its due in comparison to its close relation, salted caramel, but basically salted honey is nature's version thereof and a really, really good idea. To get the salty hit, I scattered a generous pinch of coarse sea salt in the warmed honey, and then, for good measure, sprinkled just a bit (you don't want to overdo it) on top of the challah too. I tried making the honeyed egg wash a few different ways, and settled on just barely warming the honey with a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of almond milk, then stirring in a beaten egg. This gets you a nice, shiny crust with a pronounced savory-sweet honey flavor.
The base recipe
This challah is based on my go-to challah recipe. If you'd like to have one plain challah and one currant challah, divide the dough in half before adding the currants and let each half rise in its own, separate bowl. When I do this, I've used the salted honey wash for both loaves, but if you have picky eaters around, you might want to use a plain egg wash for the non-currant loaf (um, note to self).
Shaping the challah into an easy, circular braid
The way I've shaped this challah, and described in the instructions below, is in an easy circular braid. (The process photos are of a pumpkin challah, hence the orange hue.) Essentially, you're just making an ordinary braid twisted into a circle: To make the 3-strand braid, roll the dough into three long strands and fold the right strand, then the left strand over the center strand, just like braiding hair. Then, gently tug on the edges of the braid to stretch it out a bit. Twist the braid it into a circle with a little tail hanging out. Last step: push the tail under the challah and up through the hole in the center. This way of making a braided round challah is quick and looks great. If you're looking for a more complex (though still quite doable) circular braid, I have a step-by-step post about making a woven and braided 6-strand round challah.
Currant Challah with Salted Honey Crust (parve)
- Stand mixer fitted with dough hook attachment (see notes for hand mixing)
- 5 cups all-purpose flour - 800g - plus more as needed
- 1 ¼ cup warm water - 300ml - plus more as needed
- ¼ cup honey - 60ml
- 2 ¼ tsp active dry yeast* - 70g (1 packet)
- 3 eggs
- ⅓ cup neutral-flavored oil - 80ml
- 1 ½ Tbsp kosher salt - 25g
- ½ cup Zante currants - 75g - many US supermarkets carry Sun-Maid brand for under US$5
Salted honey egg wash:
- 2 Tbsp honey
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tsp almond milk
- several pinches coarse sea salt
- 1 egg - beaten
Activate the yeast:
- Into a 2-cup glass measuring cup, measure out the ¼ cup honey. Add 1¼ cup warm water to the measuring cup - warm, meaning it's comfortable to touch with your finger. (You can use either hot tap water, or mix ½ cup boiled water with ¾ cup cold tap water.)
- Whisk together the honey and warm water until the honey is mostly dissolved. Add the yeast to the bowl and whisk again.
- Set aside for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to get foamy.
Mix the dough:
- To the stand mixer bowl, add the 5 cups (800g) of flour. Pour the foamy yeast over the flour. Fit the bowl onto the stand mixer with the dough hook and set it on "stir" (the lowest setting).
- With the mixer running on low, tip in the eggs, oil, and salt. Continue mixing until the ingredients are well combined.
- Once the dough has started coming together, turn up the speed to 2 and let the machine knead the dough for 10 minutes. Check every few minutes to see if the dough is too wet (like a cake batter) or too dry (crumbly or thumping loudly around the bowl). The consistency of the dough will change significantly as the machine kneads it.
- If the dough is too wet, add more flour to the mixer bowl, ¼ cup at a time. If the dough is too dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time (it doesn't need to be warm).
- When the dough is supple and dry to the touch, reduce the speed to the lowest setting again and tip in the currants. Let the machine knead the currants into the dough for 30 seconds or so. Then, turn out the dough onto your work surface and knead it by hand for another 2 minutes to distribute the currants throughout.
Leave the dough to rise:
- Shape the dough into a round. Mist the stand mixer bowl with oil and return the hand-kneaded ball of dough to the bowl. Mist the top of the dough with oil as well. Cover tightly with cling / beeswax wrap or a bowl lid and leave in a warm part of your kitchen, such as the inside of your (turned-off) oven with the light on.
- The enriched dough will rise slowly, but should be puffed and noticeably bigger after about 2 hours rise time, up to about 5 hours.
Shape and proof:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Line one light-colored baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
- Turn out the proofed dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using a bench scraper or a sharp knife, divide the dough in half (for two loaves; for kiddush-sized, see note below).
- Set aside the half you're not working on, then further subdivide the portion in front of you. For a three-strand loaf, cut it into three roughly equal pieces using the bench scraper or knife.
- Roll each of the three lumps of dough into a long, thing rope about ¾" / 2cm thick and 14" / 30cm long and tapered at the ends.
- Lay the three ropes side by side, then bring the tapered ends together and press firmly to join.
- Braid (plait) the rope by bringing the right-hand strand over the middle - the rightmost strand has now become the new middle strand. Next, bring the left-hand strand over this new middle strand. Repeat until you get to the end of the braid.
- Gently stretch out the braid by tugging at both ends. Shape into a circle with about 4" / 10cm tail remaining after the join. Push this tail under the challah and up through the hole in the center so it just peeks out. Transfer loaves onto the prepared baking sheet, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and leave to proof (rise in its final shape) for half an hour or so.
Make the salted honey egg wash:
- To a small pot or microwave-safe bowl, add the honey, 1 tsp olive oil, and just a pinch of the coarse sea salt. Heat it over a low flame until just barely hot, about 1 minute, or in the microwave for 20 seconds. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Break an egg into a small bowl and beat with a whisk. While whisking, add the the beaten egg to the slightly cooled honey mixture. Whisk until smooth and well combined.
- Brush the salted honey wash liberally over the loaves. Sprinkle with an additional pinch of coarse sea salt over each loaf.
Bake the challahs:
- Bake the challahs for 40-45 minutes (or about 35 minutes for kiddush-sized loaves), until golden and well risen.