The Subtle Sweetness of Kalács (Challah)
Updated: Jun 7
Growing up Hungarian, my mom would intermittently make kalács. A yummy brioche-type sweet yeast bread, beautifully braided. I loved eating it with butter and either apricot or strawberry jam. Despite how much I loved it, she typically reserved baking it for the Easter holiday. When I married a Greek, I made 'my' kalács loaf at Easter and my mother-in-law wanted to plop a bright red-dyed hard-boiled egg into the center of my beautiful braid. She was so proud that I had made her Greek tsoureki! Okay, I thought, the Greeks want the credit ... again! Then I traveled to Israel several times and noted similar braided loaves piled high on the shelves every Friday for Shabbat. They call it challah, with the surface, often sprinkled with poppyseeds or sesame seeds. This subtly sweet yeast bread is also common throughout Eastern Europe, for the Romanians, Russians, Poles, and Slavs all bake it and celebrate with it. Whatever you choose to call it, the recipes are similar but not identical, the loaves look the same and they ALL taste yummy! In actuality, tsoureki recipes incorporate two additional key flavorings, Mastic and Mahlepi, which distinguish tsoureki sweet bread from challah or kalács.
Traditionally, the delicious kalács, other Eastern European sweet breads, and tsoureki are made with butter and milk. Challah, however, is often parve, in keeping with the laws of kashrut, and made with oil (or margarine) and water, instead. All require two risings. After some kneading and MUCH LOVE, the bread is braided with three, four, or even six strands and then baked until golden brown. No doubt every household has its own family recipe when it comes to this tasty yeast bread. I have made the recipe below both ways; I've used butter and milk, and have also substituted canola oil and water. Both worked perfectly!
Kalács or Challah recipe
Ingredients: (makes two medium loaves)
1 1/2 - 2 cups warm milk OR warm water
3 Tbsp Active dry yeast (4 packets; as 1 packet = 2.25 tsp)
1 Tbsp plus 1/2 cup sugar
6 cups all-purpose flour; plus 1 cup more as needed
1 Tbsp salt
4 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup melted butter OR canola oil
poppy seeds or sesame seeds for topping, optional
1 beaten egg, for egg wash
1. In a small bowl, activate the yeast by dissolving it and 1 Tbsp sugar in warm milk (<115 F) OR warm water. Set aside and proof. (If you use Instant dry yeast instead of Active dry yeast, then it doesn't need to be "activated", so you can add the instant yeast directly into the dry ingredients. Add the Tbsp sugar and the milk OR water volume to the dough along with the other liquid ingredients)
2. In a separate large mixing bowl, sift together 6 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt.
3. Once the yeast is activated, add the yeast mixture (assuming you are using the Active dry yeast) and the 4 beaten eggs to the large bowl of flour.
4. Stir in the melted butter OR the oil, whichever fat you desire to use, and mix well with a wooden spoon. Once the entire mass sticks together pretty well then knead with the dough hook in a standing mixer for about 5 minutes. If the dough is too sticky and not pulling away from the side of the bowl as the dough is being kneaded, then add more flour a little at a time. The dough consistency should pull away from the sides of the bowl and should be smooth and pliable, but still a little sticky.
5. Oil a large bowl and place the dough ball into the bowl, coating its surface thoroughly with the oil. Cover the bowl with a dry dishtowel and let rise (#1). Can proof in the oven, for about one hour, until it doubles in size.
6. Punch down the dough ball, knead a few times and then divide it in half.
7. Divide each half into 3 or 4 or 6 pieces, depending on how many strands you plan to braid with. I will braid with 4 strands in this blog.
8. Working on a very lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a long cylindrical strand. Attach the four strands at one end, and begin braiding. With the attached ends across from you, fan out the 4 strands and braid from right to left. Move the right outermost strand over the 2nd strand, under the 3rd, and over the 4th. Keep repeating the same maneuver with the next strand that is the furthest right ... over, under, over ... Once the braid is completed, press the ends together. Then tuck BOTH ends beneath the loaf.
9. Carefully place the braided loaf on a baking pan lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet.
10. Cover the loaf with a dry towel and let rise, AGAIN (#2), in a warm place until doubles in size.
11. Brush the braided loaf with egg wash, twice, allowing for the dough to absorb the egg wash in between coatings. Can sprinkle with poppyseeds or sesame seeds at this point, if you desire.
12. Bake the bread in a pre-heated oven at 350 F, for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.
13. Let cool before slicing.
What's not to LOVE about this delicious bread? It is quite simple and straightforward to make, as long as you follow the steps. It does require a time commitment, however, because you need to WAIT while the dough rises TWICE. Certainly, the bread is best when it is FRESH. Tasty toppings or accompaniments are soft butter and apricot jam, savory ham slices, Nutella, tehina sauce, matbucha, mutabal (baba ghanoush), or hummus, to name just a few.
Of course, if you have LEFTOVER bread, do not panic. One-day old leftover sweet bread is perfect for making cinnamon or vanilla-scented French toast with soft butter and warm maple syrup alongside some crispy bacon. You can also use the leftover bread to make a sweet bread pudding, savory strata, or a warm gooey grilled cheese sandwich.
While this bread can certainly be enjoyed throughout the year, Easter is a perfect time to taste this tradition!