Challah Days

Three years ago, a Jewish-Chinese music student and fledgling food blogger followed her fiance from New York City to a sugar beet farm just south of nowhere. This is the story of how Molly Yeh baked her way home.


By Hannah Agran
Photos by Kevin J. Miyazaki and Blaine Moats

Flying into grand forks, North Dakota, in winter, you can see the wind before you feel it. Snow sifts across the ashy grid of farms and empty roads, blown into rippling ribbons by an arctic wind that knows no end. If a first-timer had any doubts she had landed at the far end of the Midwest, a sign outside the airport plots the location in stark terms: Turn right for Fargo, left for Winnipeg.

Or go straight, through town. Cross the state line into East Grand Forks, Minnesota, drive a ways up a country highway, and pull up to a tiny ranch home hidden behind a windbreak of thick pines. Inside, Molly Yeh pads around her postage-stamp kitchen in wool socks, arranging cupcakes she's testing for her first cookbook, Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm (Rodale, $32.50). Made with last spring's rhubarb, they cast a ray of warm sunshine into a very, very cold day.

Raised in the Chicago suburbs by her Chinese father and Jewish mother, Molly went East for school and studied percussion at Juilliard. There she met Nick Hagen, a Norwegian-American trombonist who was beginning to realize he wanted to go home to Minnesota. One summer Molly visited his family's fifth-generation farm and realized she was craving a quiet life, too. “Nick never wanted to pressure me,” she says. “Finally I told him, ‘I'm moving out here whether you're with me or not.’”

After arriving in 2013, Molly dived into her blog (mynameisyeh.com), mastering photography and cooking feverishly. She and Nick married in 2015. On days when rural domesticity felt more like culture shock and loneliness, food bridged the divide. Molly embraced Nick's mom's tater tot hot dish, and his family, in turn, welcomed her Israeli eggs in tomatoes. When she craved good pizza or Vietnamese banh mi, she got busy and made her own. And like her own mother, Molly baked challah (HAH-lah), a rich, glossy Jewish egg bread traditionally served on the Sabbath.

“This dough is so lovely to work with,” she explains, stretching a pillowy ball into three golden ropes. “It's like my comfort blanket. I use it for everything.” In Molly's hands, challah takes many forms. Petite spirals receive a modern flurry of flaky sea salt. A braid threaded with green onions pays tribute to her Asian heritage. Cardamom-flecked buns echo the Scandinavian Christmas breads Nick's ancestors might have baked.

In fact, as Molly pulls loaves from the oven and Nick stamps snow from his boots, the memory of those hardy homesteaders feels startlingly close. Then and now, the surest way to stay warm on a vast, frozen prairie is to wrap yourself in the flavors of home.


Hot Cocoa-Nut

While traveling in Israel, Molly discovered hawaij, a spice blend often sprinkled in coffee. She adds it to her coconut-based hot chocolate for extra flavor.

Hands On: 10 minutes Total: 10 minutes


  • 1 14-ounce can unsweetened light coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • Hawaij spice blend (recipe follows)

  • In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients (except hawaij). Cook over medium heat, stirring with a whisk, until mixture is hot but not boiling. Top each mug with a pinch of hawaij. Makes 2 servings.

Hawaij: In a jar, combine 1 tablespoon each ground ginger and ground cardamom; ¼ teaspoon each ground nutmeg, ground cloves and ground cinnamon; and ⅛ teaspoon salt.


Per Serving 246 cal, 13 g fat, 0 mg chol, 97 mg sodium, 29 g carbo, 0 g fiber, 5 g pro.


Orange-Spice Challah Buns

Molly's soft, slightly chewy, Scandi-esque rolls are ideal for brunch or even as a sweet complement to a holiday dinner.

Hands On: 35 minutes Total: 3 hours 30 minutes


  • 1 package active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
  • 1 cup warm water (105° to 115°)
  • 2 teaspoons orange zest
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom
  • ⅔ cup flavorless oil, such as canola
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon pearl decorating sugar* or coarse decorating sugar

  • In a medium bowl, combine the yeast, warm water and orange juice. Let it sit for about 5 minutes, until slightly foamy.Meanwhile, in a large bowl or the bowl of stand mixer, combine the flour, sugar, orange zest, cinnamon, salt and cardamom. In a medium bowl, whisk together oil and 2 eggs.
  • Add yeast mixture and egg mixture to the flour mixture; stir to combine. Knead, either by hand on a floured surface or with a dough hook on medium speed for 7 to 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary (but resist any urge to add too much!), until you have a smooth and slightly sticky dough.
  • Transfer dough to an extra-large oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until doubled in size, about 2 hours. (Alternatively, chill dough in refrigerator overnight, then let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before shaping.)
  • Divide dough into 18 pieces. Shape into balls and place on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Loosely cover and let rise 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350°. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush buns with egg wash and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until buns are golden brown and have an internal temperature of 190°. Slide paper onto wire racks and let buns cool at least 15 minutes before serving. Makes 18 servings.

*Shopping tip: Swedish pearl sugar is a coarse, crunchy white sugar that doesn't melt in the oven. It's a bit hard to find, but King Arthur Flour is a good online source.

Per Serving 257 cal, 9 g fat, 31 mg chol, 107 mg sodium, 37 g carbo, 1 g fiber, 6 g pro.


Classic Challah

Molly's challah works like a dream. (The whole-wheat variation is especially delicious.) The recipe yields four small loaves but halves easily to make just two.

Hands On: 35 minutes Total: 3 hours 35 minutes


  • 1½ cups warm water (105° to 115°)
  • 2 envelopes active dry yeast (4½ teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 6½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • ⅔ cup flavorless oil, such as canola
  • ¼ cup additional sweetener: granulated sugar, honey, molasses or packed light brown sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • ½ teaspoon flaky sea salt

  • In a small bowl, stir together the 1½ cups warm water, yeast and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar. Let stand for about 5 minutes, until slightly foamy. Meanwhile, in a large bowl or the bowl of stand mixer, mix together the flour, kosher salt and ¼ cup sugar. In a medium bowl, whisk together the 4 eggs, oil and additional sweetener.
  • Add yeast mixture and egg mixture to the flour mixture; stir to combine. Knead, either by hand on a floured surface or with a dough hook on medium speed for 7 to 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary (but resist any urge to add too much!), until you have a smooth and slightly sticky dough.
  • Transfer dough to an extra-large oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until doubled in size, about 2 hours. (Alternatively, chill dough in the refrigerator overnight, then let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before shaping.)
  • Divide dough into four portions. Roll each portion into a rope about 3 feet long. Roll ropes into spirals. Place loaves at least 3 inches apart on two large baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely; let rise at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 375°. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water. Brush the loaves with a thin, even layer of the egg wash; sprinkle with sea salt. Bake about 30 minutes or until loaves are golden brown and have an internal temperature of 190°. Slide paper onto wire racks and let loaves cool at least 30 minutes before slicing. Makes 24 servings.

Whole-Wheat Challah: Substitute up to 2½ cups whole-wheat flour for an equal amount of all-purpose flour. (This dough may take slightly longer to rise.)

Per Serving 212 cal, 7 g fat, 39 mg chol, 155 mg sodium, 31 g carbo, 1 g fiber, 5 g pro.


Scallion Pancake Challah

Molly's Classic Challah dough is the base for this riff on a Chinese takeout favorite.

Hands On: 15 minutes Total: 1 hour 40 minutes


  • Half batch of Classic Challah, prepared through Step 4 (see recipe at left)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, divided
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

  • Divide risen dough into thirds. Roll each portion into a 12-inch rope. Gently flatten each rope so that it is about 3 inches wide. Brush each with toasted sesame oil and sprinkle with kosher salt, some of the black pepper and all of the crushed red pepper and green onions. Roll up the ropes, starting from a long side to enclose filling. Pinch the edges to seal and then braid the ropes with seam sides down. Place loaf on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely and let rise for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 375°. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and remaining black pepper. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown and has an internal temperature of 190°. Slide paper onto wire rack and let loaf cool at least 30 minutes before slicing. Makes 16 servings.

Per Serving 172 cal, 7 g fat, 35 mg chol, 120 mg sodium, 24 g carbo, 1 g fiber, 4 g pro.