Baking with Barbara McLaughlin

Barbara and her daughter Madeline make homemade challah with Suzanne Pollak, Dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Arts.

Barbara & Madeline McLaughlin wearing the Arlette Striped Turtleneck

Zoom photo credits: Photos courtesy @ladieswholake

 “Homemade carbs are magical little things: they bring people together, show love and make memories.”

- Suzanne Pollak

Dean, The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits


‘Tis the season for homemade challah! Grounded in ancient Jewish tradition, this gorgeously glossy braided bread graces the Chanukah table—and then makes the most wonderful French toast and grilled cheese sandwiches. While there are lots of places in New York to buy great challah, including Eli’s Market on Third Avenue on the Upper East Side, there’s something special about making a loaf from scratch.


To prepare for the all-important holiday baking season, Barbara McLaughlin and her daughter Madeline signed up for Carbs 101, an online class at the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. Taught by Barbara’s friend Suzanne Pollak, founder of the Academy, professional baker and cookbook author, the classes are the next best thing to being in Suzanne’s cozy kitchen in Charleston, not far from our J.McLaughlin store on King Street.

Dressed in kicky zebra-patterned J. Mclaughlin leggings, the UVA-educated Suzanne is an engaging teacher and raconteur extraordinaire. As she’s feeding the yeast and kneading the dough, she peppers her instructions with amusing stories about her childhood in Lebanon and Africa. Her dad was in the CIA, so he and her mom hosted weekly soirées for local residents and international guests, with Suzanne learning firsthand how to throw a glamorous and intriguing party.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Pollak wearing our Marlee Pants 

After mastering how to make the best English muffins, tender pancakes, perfect pastry, authentic Southern biscuits, holiday Challah and fresh pasta, Barbara and Madeline received their official Master’s Degree in Carbs from the Academy!



For two loaves:

2 1/2 cups warm water

1 package active dry yeast or 1 tablespoon - NOT FAST ACTING

1/4 cup sugar or honey

3 eggs

1 tablespoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil (plus extra for the baking sheet)

8 - 9 cups unbleached white flour

poppy and/or sesame seeds, to sprinkle on top

(1 cup raisins, optional)

Madeline says to make a savory loaf with bits of sun-dried tomatoes and sliced olives :-)


For one loaf:

1 1/4 cups warm water

1/2 package active dry yeast - NOT FAST ACTING 1/8 cup sugar or honey

2 eggs

2 teaspoons salt

1/8 cup olive oil (plus extra for the baking sheet)

4 - 4.5 cups unbleached white flour

poppy and/or sesame seeds, to sprinkle on top

(1/2 cup raisins, optional)



Place water in a bowl, add the sugar or honey, and sprinkle in the yeast. Let sit for at least 5 minutes, until the mixture is foamy.


Add the egg (2 if making two loaves), salt, oil (and optional raisins). Beat with a wire whisk for several minutes.


Begin adding 1 cup of flour at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition. When you add the fourth (or seventh cup if making two loaves) of flour slowly add the rest of the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough is firm enough to knead and not too sticky.


(This can be done in a standing mixer)


Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead for a few minutes, around 8 to 10 minutes. The more kneading the better :-) You are developing the gluten structure. Add as little flour as possible. The dough will be somewhat sticky and that is okay. If it is sticking to your fingers add a little flour.


Take a break for five minutes to allow the dough to rest. Make a cup of tea or check emails! The five minutes will make the dough less sticky and easier to deal with. Knead for five more minutes, until elastic and bounces back when you stick a finger in the dough.


Place the dough in a large bowl. Cover with a tea towel and place in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. You can cover loosely with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. I left the dough in the fridge for two days, but gave it a good punching after 24 hours. Then I put it back in the fridge to recuperate and rise!


Very lightly oil a baking sheet.


Punch the dough down, and place it on the counter. Divide into thirds using a serrated knife or a pastry cutter. Roll each third into a long rope, longer than the baking sheet. Taper the ends.


Place three ropes in the middle of the baking sheet. Braid starting at the middle and braid out to each end. Pull and stretch as you go. Pinch and tuck the ends together. Cover with the tea towel and let rise again for about 45 minutes. You can cover loosely with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.


It is best to allow the braided bread to double in size so it has less spring in the oven, which means fewer unglazed parts.


Preheat oven to 350. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the risen loaf. Sprinkle generously with the poppy and/or sesame seeds. Bake for 40 - 45 minutes. Halfway through cooking remove from oven and paint glaze on unglazed expanded parts. Sprinkle more seeds on that new glaze too. Remove from oven and cool on a rack.



Challah is actually a brioche with more egg and less liquid and fat. Replace sugar with honey.


If the loaves were kept in the refrigerator overnight place them directly into the hot oven. Increase baking time to 45-50 minutes.


The dough can be placed in a 2-gallon zip lock and refrigerated overnight. Allow the dough to come to room temperature for 30 minutes before braiding.


The bread is best the day of baking, but it freezes well. The best French Toast ever!!