Mary’s Onion Challah

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Yield:


    Medium Loaves

Appears in

Though he lived to be 94, my grandfather never tasted an ice cream that could match the ones he remembered buying from the old Turkish vendor back in Minsk or Smolensk before he arrived in New York at age 12.

He taught me a valuable food lesson: our most cherished food memories inevitably lead to disappointment. Perhaps that is because our culinary selves are constantly evolving—we taste the world with a different tongue at various times in our lives. Or maybe no real food could ever live up to one garnished with the patina of memory, burnished with age.

For me, with Ratner’s oniony egg rolls, it was a little of both. In the years since the demise of the beloved dairy restaurant on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, I’ve tasted many versions of the rolls, some purportedly made exactly according to the recipe published in The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook. None excited the way the oniony little breads, smeared with cold sweet butter, did.

To paraphrase, the fault was not with the rolls, but with me that they were underlings. What I was after was far more oniony and buttery-tasting than the rolls had ever been.

My good friend Dr. Mary McLarnon, a consummate baker, had never tasted Ratner’s onion rolls, but as I explained the taste memories that I wanted this book’s challah to channel (challah and Jewish egg rolls are often made from the same rich dough), her blue eyes lit up. Since the bread had to be pareve, we talked about doing a triple rise to achieve the butteriness. A few days later, Mary dropped off two fragrant loaves for us to taste.

Not satisfied, Mary kept working on ways to boost the onion flavor until it tasted as incredibly aromatic as it smelled. The touch of cumin, reminiscent of Alsatian-Jewish bakeries, somehow made it more buttery.

Finally Mary brought two more loaves when Alex was home for Thanksgiving vacation. There were five of us that night—Alex, her boyfriend, my brother, my husband, and me—and we polished off every crumb.

It wasn’t Ratner’s onion roll. It was better.

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  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and cut into coarse chunks (about pounds)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup onion-garlic liquid (reserved from recipe)
  • 2 envelopes (¼ ounce each) active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon plus ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons mild olive oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • Table salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin, preferably freshly toasted
  • 4 to 5 cups plus 1 tablespoon bread flour, plus additional for dusting the work surface, kneading, and shaping the dough
  • Coarse salt
  • Oil for greasing the bowl, plastic wrap, and baking sheet
  • 1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water, for glaze


Have all ingredients, except glaze, at room temperature.

In a food processor, pulse the onions and garlic until finely chopped but not pureed. Drape a damp, thin kitchen towel or double thickness of cheesecloth over a strainer set in a bowl. Scrape the onion-garlic mixture onto the cloth, gather the ends of the cloth together, and twist and wring until you have squeezed as much liquid as possible into the bowl, reserving it. Set aside the onion-garlic mixture. Don’t bother to wash out the food processor.

Measure the reserved onion-garlic liquid, adding enough plain water, if necessary, so that you have 1 cup. Warm the liquid to 100 to 110°F, and add it to the food processor. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid, add 1 teaspoon of sugar, and allow the mixture to dissolve and proof, 5 to 10 minutes.

Add ¼ cup oil, the remaining ¼ cup sugar, the eggs, 2 teaspoons table salt, and cumin. Pulse for a few moments to combine. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, pulsing briefly after each addition. After you’ve added 4 cups, process briefly until the dough forms a ball around the blade. (If the dough seems too moist, add additional flour in small increments through the feed tube until the sides of the processor bowl are clean but the dough still appears to be a little sticky.) Continue processing for 2 to 3 more minutes to knead the dough until smooth and elastic.

Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl. Cover with greased plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm draft-free place until double in bulk, 2 to 3 hours. (You can begin the bread the day before you plan to bake it, and let the dough rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator. Bring the dough back to room temperature before continuing.) To test whether the bread has fully risen, gently press it with a fingertip. If the dent remains, the dough is ready.

While the bread is rising, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the reserved chopped onion and garlic, salt lightly, and cook uncovered over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft, up to 40 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, and continue cooking, lifting and turning, until golden and caramelized and all pan liquid has been absorbed. If necessary, turn the heat up to high for a few moments and cook, stirring, just until the pan liquid disappears. Cool the mixture to room temperature.

Punch the dough down. Now, using your hands or a floured rolling pin, gently flatten the dough and shape it into a circle about ¾-inch thick. In a small bowl, mix about three-quarters of the caramelized onion mixture with 1 tablespoon flour, and spread it over the dough, leaving a 1-inch margin. Sprinkle lightly with the coarse salt. Fold in the edges and reform the dough into a ball. Sprinkling with more flour as necessary, knead for 1 to 2 minutes to lightly incorporate the onions into the dough. Let the dough rise a second time until double in bulk, about 2 hours.

Punch the dough down and divide it into six equal pieces. Using your palms, roll the pieces into identical ropes about 10 inches long. Braid the ropes into two loaves, using three ropes for each loaf. An easy way to do this evenly is to start the braid in the middle, braid to one end, then turn the loaf upside down and braid to the other end. Turn the ends under and press down to keep them joined together.

If you find the dough is difficult to work because the onions push through to the surface, you can shape it into two turbans instead: divide the dough into two pieces. With your palms, roll each piece into a long rope, thicker at one end. Holding the thicker end on the work surface with one hand, with the other hand spiral the rope around the thick end, forming a turban. Tuck the end of the rope under the edge to hold in place.

Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Apply the first coat of egg wash (reserve the rest), brushing it all over. Cover with greased plastic wrap and allow to rise for a third time until double in bulk, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the remaining caramelized onions into the remaining egg wash. When the loaves have risen, brush the egg wash-onion mixture over the top. Just before placing in the oven, sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Bake for about 35 minutes on the middle rack, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a rack and let cool, or remove from the baking sheet and place directly on the oven rack to cool with the oven door left ajar.