Good challah tastes like a prize for making it to the end of a long week. It’s a rich and doughy, slightly sweet pat on the back: Hey, it’s Friday, whatever is done is done, and whatever hasn’t been done, well, it’s just going to have to wait.
Observant Jews — and even some tied more to tradition and culture than religion — light candles and bless bread and wine to mark the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday night. The Sabbath itself — the prohibition on work and the commandment to find joy, rest, and prayer for the next 24 hours — begins with the lighting of the candles 18 minutes before sundown. But, for me at least, the week truly ends with that first bite of egg bread, torn off in chunks, drizzled in honey, and passed around the table. And, exhale.
It’s probably the carbs triggering a major serotonin release, but I’ll take it.
Until recently, it was hard to find a challah in the Twin Cities that felt truly celebratory, that made you want to hang around the table after dinner, tearing off just one more piece. An airy, dry loaf feels more like an obligation than a gift. But, with the expanded Rustica bakery and the brand-new Patisserie 46, Friday nights — and Saturday-morning French toast, and Sunday-afternoon sandwiches — just got a little bit sweeter.
We’re ready, right here, right now, to crown this the best challah in the Twin Cities. It’s so rich and buttery I was wary of serving it with meat dishes to kosher-keeping friends. But, nope, John Kraus, owner and baker at Patisserie 46 swears that there is no dairy involved (though the bakery, and therefore the challah, is not certified kosher). He got the recipe from a Swiss friend who had been baking it for years. Inside a thin crust is a soft, dense loaf with that stretchy, chewy crumb that makes you keep going back to break off yet another piece. But what really sets it apart is the depth of flavor, with a slight sourness that suggests a nice slow rise. Kraus makes 50 loaves each Friday and won’t take orders, so when they’re gone, they’re gone. “I think people like it fairly well,” he says modestly. “We can’t decide whether people like raisins. And then there’s the poppy seed debate. And the sesame seed debate…” We’ll take one of each, please.
It was a photo finish for the top prize, really, and Rustica’s challah came in behind Patisserie 46 by less than a nose. This beautiful loaf has a thick crust lined with lovely crackles in the braid. It’s a deep mahogany brown, because bakers in the French tradition aren’t afraid of truly browning their breads and pastries. Inside, the loaf is the perfect density, though not quite as chewy and stretchy as it might be. Lightly sweet, it has a nicely developed flavor.
This is your classic American, middle-of-the-road, reliable challah. It’s also our top pick among the bunch for French toast (and, if not for Shabbat, that’s probably what you want your challah for, anyway). It’s a lot lighter in color, a little drier, and slightly less dense than our top two challahs, without that lovely stretchy chewiness. The flavor is rich, but not well-developed and yeasty. Yum!, unlike other bakeries, makes challah throughout the week.
The family calls this “the chewy challah” — and they meant it in a good way! The light-colored crust is thickish and, indeed, pretty darn chewy. It’s nicely dense and heavy and just rich enough. Breadsmith’s challah is the go-to for many families throughout the metro and a great choice for an ordinary week. Some locations, including Edina, are certified kosher.
You’ve got to throw some elbows to get your hands on the classic St. Paul challah. Show up in the morning and you’ll be told the challah comes out of the oven around midday. Show up at 12:05 and you may well hear that the challah has sold out — and, really, what took you so long? Now that there are even better options available across the river, we’re not sure it’s worth hanging around to find out when the challah scrum actually takes place. Cecil’s challah is very soft, with a texture most like sandwich bread. (Pictured here is their breaded egg loaf, made with the same challah dough baked in a loaf pan, so it is great for sandwiches.) It’s got a decent crust on it, but not a whole lot of flavor going on.
Great Harvest makes a loaf you either love or hate, but it’s pretty far from a classic challah. Like all their breads, it is entirely — almost mysteriously — crustless and strangely uniform throughout. More often than not, Great Harvest breads seem even a tad undercooked. This challah has its partisans, however. It’s made from partially whole-wheat flour and is very sweet.
Many people looking for a glatt (very strict) kosher loaf turn to Fishman’s every week. But if your religious standards don’t call for it, you can do better. Fishman’s challah, available in white and whole wheat, is too airy to be satisfying and, instead of rich egg yolks, tastes more of shortening.
Another kosher and serviceable choice, Byerly’s makes a light, airy, and lightly flavored challah that will get you through Shabbat, but won’t make you reach for seconds. If you’ve left your challah search to the last minute and other bakeries have all run out, this is a good place to look.
We headed to this new kosher-certified coffeeshop and bakery one Friday morning, pretty confident that we’d find a real contender for the challah crown. The bagels, made on site, are dense, chewy, and authentically sized (that is, the size of your fist, not your head). The festive honey cake made for Rosh Hashannah was straight out of Bubbe’s kitchen. The sticky buns were sweet and decadent. But there was no challah behind the counter. “Because we’re a dairy facility, the rabbis have asked us not to make challah,” was the answer we got. Fair enough; most people do serve meat on Shabbat.
One last challah that’s easily available but not on this list is the one sold at Whole Foods. About that we will only say that the grocery chain has achieved a feat never before witnessed: making bakery white bread entirely unpalatable.
Bakery in southwest Minneapolis
4552 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
OWNER / BAKER: John Krause
Bakery in Calhoun Village in Minneapolis
3224 W Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55416
Restaurant and bakery in St. Louis Park
4000 Minnetonka Blvd
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
OWNER: Patti Soskin
National bakery chain with locations in Edina, Minnetonka, and St. Paul
3939 W 50th St
Edina, MN 55424
1816 S Plymouth Rd
Minnetonka, MN 55305
1579 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
Deli and bakery in Highland neighborhood of St. Paul
651 S Cleveland
St. Paul, MN 55116
National bakery chain with locations Minneapolis, St. Paul, Woodbury, Minnetonka, and Burnsville
8160 Coller Way
Woodbury, MN 55125
534 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105
4314 Upton Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
1100 E County Rd 42
Burnsville, MN 55337
17416 Minnetonka Blvd
Minnetonka, MN 55345
Deli, grocery, and bakery in St. Louis Park
4100 Minnetonka Blvd
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
Grocery chain with locations throughout the metro
Seven Stars Coffee House
Coffeeshop and bakery in Edina
7015 Amundson Ave
Edina, MN 55439
OWNERS: Kimberly Barrett and Kathy Rendleman
(adapted from the Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan)
2 packets active dry yeast (not instant)
1 ½ c warm water (105–115º; heat cold water to desired temperature, rather than using hot tap water)
1/3 to ½ c sugar, to taste
6 to 6 ½ c unbleached all-purpose white flour
2 tsp salt
½ c vegetable oil (vegetable, corn, or canola; olive can be used in a pinch)
4 eggs (two whole, two divided)
1. Mix the yeast with ½ cup of the water and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Let the mixture rest for 5–10 minutes until it’s foamy.
2. In a large bowl, either by hand or using an electric mixer with dough hooks, mix 4 cups of flour with remaining sugar, salt, and oil until it’s crumbly. Add yeast mixture, remaining water, two whole eggs, and two egg whites. Beat together for about 4 minutes. Slowly add in just enough of the flour to form a sticky dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Let stand for 4 minutes.
3. Turn out dough onto a floured surface, scraping all the flour and dough stuck to the sides of the bowl. Knead it for 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary. It should be smooth when done. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn the dough once so all sides are oily. Cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap or some other oiled smooth cover (make sure the dough can breathe!) and a clean dishtowel to keep the dough moist and dark. Let rise for about 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.
4. Divide dough in half for two loaves. For each loaf, divide the dough into three, four, five, or six pieces, depending upon the kind of braid you prefer. Let them stand for 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, grease two cookie sheets with a hard fat such as butter, margarine, or vegetable shortening. Sprinkle surface with corn meal. Alternatively, cut parchment paper to the size of your cookie sheet and place on the sheet.
6. Braid and form dough. Place on prepared sheet. Let rise for 30–45 minutes. For the glaze, mix two egg yolks with 2 teaspoons water. Brush loaves completely with the yolk mixture. Bake immediately in a preheated 375º oven for 35 minutes. Crust should be brown and the bottom of each loaf should sound hollow when tapped. It’s okay if portions of the crusts in the cracks of the braid are yellow rather than brown. Cool loaves on wire racks.
Challahs freeze well. Wrap in two layers of airtight plastic; large turkey cooking bags work particularly well. Defrost loaf inside the plastic wrapping over 4–6 hours at room temperature, so that the bread can reabsorb the moisture.