Challah Back (and Back and Back)
Guest post by Bill St. John
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and KCNC-TV Channel 4, and nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. A Denver native, St. John lives in his hometown.
Every baker of bread bakes their bread standing in a (very) long line of bakers, going back thousands of years. Each loaf is a demonstration of craft, a human enterprise. Anyone who crafts anything does the same.
But in a more noteworthy way, a Jewish person who bakes a challah stands in a more noteworthy line, one that reaches back more than 5,000 years and that recaptures, in each instance, the significance contained in a simple loaf of bread over and above its component parts, flour, yeast, water, and salt.
Here is that line.
Upon the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the rabbis transferred many of the rites performed therein to the home. These rites included, notably, the lighting of candles, washing of hands, and blessing of wine, all of which would now take place at the humble table rather than an altar.
Shortly after this ecclesiastical relocation, the mealtime bread took on new meaning as a symbol of the bread-sacrifice brought to the Temple. That bread was, in olden times, a mixture of flour, oil, and frankincense, and prior to the destruction of the Temple, some of those loaves were burned as an offering to God.
Those bread offerings originated, in obeyance to the command to that effect in Numbers 15:20, as a portion of the bread baked by the Israelites in their normal course of kitchen work that would be set aside and offered to the priests of the Temple for their sustenance. Putting aside that portion was called “taking challah,” with “challah” meaning “bread” or “loaf.”
Even after the destruction of the Temple, challah was and still is taken. Observant Jewish bakers today remove a small portion of their challah dough (it is a redundancy, for the name of the portion is itself called “the challah”) and burn it in the oven or on a skillet to remind them of the bread given to the priests in times long gone by.
On Shabbat, the head of the household—himself a representation of the Temple priest—breaks off a piece of the challah loaf and passes it to a member of the family. Again, a taking of, as it were, the challah of challah.
The significance of these acts and gestures is heightened each year at the High Holidays. (However, let it be noted that, according to the rabbis, each Sabbath is a more sacred feast day than any other in the Jewish calendar, even Yom Kippur. In the Bible, the penalty for violating the Sabbath is death; for violating Yom Kippur, it is “merely” ex-communication.)
These significances are particularly the case with Rosh Hashanah, and they are reflected in the many rituals or emendations attendant to the baking and eating of challah for the Jewish New Year.
For instance, bakers bake round or turban-shaped challahs as a symbol of life’s cyclical nature, or as a symbol of hope that the coming year will be both complete and unbroken by any tragedy, or as a “crown” in honor of God, or as a representation that one year begins as another ends.
At Rosh Hashanah, the first piece of broken challah is allowed to be dipped in honey rather than salt (as at all other times of the year), a symbol of the hope that sweetness, and not bitterness or tears, will season the lives of Jews in the coming year.
Many bakers adorn their Rosh Hashanah challah dough with dried fruits, themselves a symbol of a ripe and rich harvest time—and a Jewish year’s end. Indeed, Moses Maimonides, in his treatise Sefer Refuot (Book of Remedies), extols dried fruit over fresh as more healthful.
Challah-baking is rich in symbolism for the Jewish people. Just as they now stand as symbols reaching back thousands of years, remembering and re-presenting those who came before, the simple baking of challah—each instance—is at once a call that echoes back generations and an affirmation of the profound and holy act that gave rise to this beloved ritual.
This recipe is from Luisa Hagemeier, who adapted it from smittenkitchen.com, which was in turn adapted from Joan Nathan.
Hagemeier is a Denver-based baker (@challahradohearth) who earned her challah chops at her native New York City’s Silver Moon Bakery. She’s been baking challahs since she was three years old. It took her four months to master the two-braid challah, but she finally got the hang of it at the apron-sides of a Muslim man named Hayouba who worked with her at Silver Moon.
All measurements in grams are by weight. Makes 3 medium or 2 large loaves.
1 1/2 cups (375 g) lukewarm water
4 1/2 teaspoons (14 g) dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
8 to 8 1/2 cups (1100-1200 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup (120-150 g) granulated sugar or honey, depending on desired sweetness
1/2 cup (120 g) neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
4 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
For the egg wash
1-2 eggs, well beaten
Whisk water, yeast, and the 1 tablespoon sugar together in mixing bowl (or bowl of electric mixer, if using). Wait until yeast mixture bubbles, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 of the flour and all the sugar (or honey), oil, eggs, and egg yolks. Mix by hand or on low speed until combined. Add the rest of the flour and the salt, mix by hand or on low speed until combined and shaggy. Continue to knead (at least 10 minutes) or increase speed to medium, until smooth and pulling away from sides of the bowl.
Film a large bowl with cooking spray; place the dough in the bowl and turn so entire ball is covered with spray. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot (or in your oven at the proofing setting, if you have one) until approximately double in size, about 1 hour. Uncover, stretch opposite sides of the ball and fold to the inside, and then stretch the other opposite sides of the dough ball and fold into the center (this is called a “stretch and fold”). Turn the ball over so the smooth side faces up. Cover and allow to rise again for about an hour, until doubled in size.
Using parchment paper, line 2 to 3 baking sheets (depending on size of sheets). Uncover the dough; divide into however many loaves you wish to make, then divide each “loaf” of dough into however many strands you need for braids. Roll each section into a rope. If filling your challah (see below for two options), flatten out the ropes and fill with fruit and/or cinnamon-sugar mixture (or filling of your choice), then pinch each flattened section together lengthwise to contain filling and re-create ropes.
Braid loaves and place on baking sheets; spray tops of loaves with cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Allow to rise 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Glaze each loaf with egg wash, using either a pastry brush or some wadded-up cheesecloth. Brush in one direction only for best results.
Place sheets in oven and allow to bake for about 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees. For medium loaves, bake for about 25 minutes (or for large, about 30 minutes), testing for doneness with a wooden skewer or by the hollow feeling when tapping on the bottom of the loaf. Allow to cool.
Dried fruit for challah
250 g raisins, dried apricots, cherries, or other dried fruit
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chop fruit to about 1/2-inch cubes (no need to chop raisins unless they are unusually large). Place in bowl or jar and cover with water, adding brown sugar and vanilla. Soak at least overnight in refrigerator.
Cinnamon schmear (from Rising, the Book of Challah, by Rebbetzin Roshie Pinson)
12 oz (3 sticks) butter or margarine
2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/4 cup cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
Mix butter or margarine and brown sugar until fluffy. Beat egg with vanilla and add to butter mixture in two additions, mixing thoroughly after each. Add cinnamon and salt and mix until smooth. Refrigerate, but be sure to let mixture come to room temperature before using.
Challah Baking Tips from Luisa Hagemeier
- “A good baker always weighs everything, never just looks.”
- Instead of a bristled brush (the interior bristles of which are difficult to keep clean), use a small piece of cheesecloth, slightly wadded up, to lay on any egg wash.
- A double egg wash, the second after the first has slightly dried, makes for a darker crust.
- For Rosh Hashanah, you might use a different glaze than for the rest of the year, namely one made of honey and water instead of just egg. “But the crust will not come out colored the same as with just egg.”
- “If you substitute anything in the recipe—say honey for sugar—only do one ingredient at a time, not both the sugar and the oil, for instance. Just one.”
- Moister dough (though not overly moist) is easier to work with, although there may be less “articulation” (less definition) among the braids after the rise and bake. Dryer dough does allow for better articulation, although it also has less taste.
- “There is a difference between elasticity, which means the dough springs back, and extensibility, which means the dough is stretchable.” You want both.
- “When doing a two-braid, taper the ends of each braid and make a small indentation in the middle, where they cross over each other.”
- “Always rise two times. It develops flavor because that’s what the yeast does when fermenting.” A second rise is not merely for gluten development.
- “For a four-braid, use smaller strands.”
- When braiding, “It’s always left over right, and whatever is under goes over.”
- Especially given her experience baking in New York City, “I don’t think Denver’s elevation makes any difference. Yes, when you’re in the mountains, it would. But not in Denver.”