Homemade Israeli Za'atar + Fennel Saffron Challah

This holiday season I wanted to make a recipe that might be featured in a traditional Jewish meal! Challah is a dense, slightly sweet egg bread that is braided and baked to a deep golden brown. It works beautifully on its own, with a swipe of butter, but also makes a delicious sandwich or batch of French toast.

It's a beautiful and simple loaf to make and perfect for a beginner bread maker, looking to use some instant yeast this season! I decided to make two unique loaves, but I encourage you to try and topping that speaks to you! Poppy seeds are a great substitute for black sesame seeds and are a more traditional topping if you want to keep things simple!

Makes Two Loafs


  • 2 cups Milk
  • 8 TBSP (1 stick) of unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 packages of Active Dry Yeast (or 4 1/2 tsps)
  • 4 Eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp Salt
  • 6 cups of unbleached, All Purpose Flour
  • 1/3 cup Cornmeal
  • 1 TBSP cold Water

Topping #1: 2 TBSP Israeli Za'atar, ground with a mortar and pestle, topped with black sesame seeds and a pinch of Maine Sea Salt

Topping #2: 1 TBSP Fennel Seed (or mixed with Ground Fennel Seed so you have a  nice mixture of ground and texturized Fennel Seed) and 4 Saffron strands, gently ground with mortar and pestle, topped with Maine Sea Salt

1. Bring milk, 6 TBSP of the butter, and the sugar to a boil together in a medium size sauce pan. Remove from heat, pour into a large mixing bowl, and let cool to lukewarm (105 - 115 degrees F)

2. Whisk yeast into the milk mixture and let stand for 10 minutes. 

3. Beat 3 of the eggs well in a small bowl, and stir them and the salt into the milk-and-yeast mixture

4. Stir in 5 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until you achieve a sticky shaggy mass. Flour a clean work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Wash and dry the bowl.

5. Sprinkle additional flour over the dough and begin kneading, adding more flour as necessary, until you have a smooth elastic dough. *sprinkle in a little at a time, only as needed. Too much flour during this stage will make your dough tough and no one likes that!*

6. Smear the reserved 2 TBSP of butter around the inside of the bowl and add the ball of dough into the bowl, turning to coat it lightly with butter. Cover bowl with a clean flour sack towel and set aside to let dough rise until tripled in size, 1 1/2 - 2 hours. 

7. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut into halves. Cut each half into three even pieces. Roll the pieces into 18" long "snakes". Connecting the tops of the three pieces, braid three of the snakes together into a loaf and tuck the ends under. Repeat with remaining snakes.

8. Sprinkle a large baking sheet with the cornmeal (or use a parchment paper lined baking sheet), and transfer the loaves to the sheet. Leave room between the loaves for them to rise. Cover loaves with the towel and let rise until nearly doubled, about 1 hour. 

9. Preheat over to 350 degrees F

10. Beat the remaining egg and 1 TBSP of cold water together well in a small bowl. Brush this egg wash evenly over the loaves. Sprinkle immediately with your toppings to taste. 

11. Set baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when their bottoms are thumped. Remove from hot sheet pans and cool completely on racks before wrapping.


Julia Bretz

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