Thursday, December 17, 2015

Challah Roundup

Marie Wolf's beautiful Challah from Breadbasketcase

I was curious about why the Challah is so special and why is it THE bread for every Jewish holiday and Shabbat. As it turns out, summarizing the history of Challah is more of a challenge than summarizing all of your blog posts. Ha! I underestimated the complexity of 3500 years of Challah history across the Diaspora—all those cross-cultural references is certainly very circular and not linear at all. However, I plucked three interesting facts out of the ocean of information—facts that might help us understand the Challah we made and shed some light on some of the traditions that surround Challah (please note that this information is paraphrased from the following link:

  • The word “cake” is a translation of the Hebrew word “challah.” It was considered a mitzvah (or blessing) to separate the bread and offer a portion of challah to the priests (kohanim).
  • Twelve humps of the loaf recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel. 
  • The intertwined strands, (or arms) symbolize love, truth, peace, creation, freedom, harmony, family connection, unity and justice–following the commandments to remember, observe and guard the sabbath or Shabbat.

So when we look at the beautiful braids that we created, we can now understand in part the natural urge (or at least mine) to tear the humps apart and share the bread-cake with others. I suppose form meets function in this case.

To the person, this Challah recipe was a rousing success. Everyone enjoyed the process and the result, and almost everyone transformed it into another dish.

Leave well enough alone is an expression that is often heard when something is near perfect and doesn’t need any improving. For Marie W., Rose’s original Challah recipe in the Bread Bible needed no improving. But in good spirit, she decided to see if Rose’s new recipe was really worth the time. She felt that this new bread really was improved with its soft, but not cottony texture. BTW, her step-by-step how-to-braid-a-challah was as funny as Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First routine. Seriously.

Kristina confessed that no matter what else she has to do, she loves making bread, mostly for its not-so-intense schedule, forgiving nature and delicious outcome. Her Challah turned into an office share, weekend french toast, and grilled cheese sandwiches.  

For Elle, making this Challah was her lifeline, especially with her little 8-month old cutie pie following her every move and occupying her every minute. Her baking spirit is indomitable and her determination to bake bread each month with us is unshakeable. Elle’s experience, in her own words read: “What a joy this dough was to work with. And I am immensely proud of my four-strand braiding! I’ve never attempted this before, not even with hair, so I was pretty excited to give it a go.” I think Elle said it all when she concluded that this Challah is fantastic and delicious. She too turned it into french toast.  

Vicki too was interested in researching the history of Challah. Her bread was mammoth in that it continued to get bigger and bigger, much like Julia Child’s ocean sized fish (you have to see the picture in her post). So after having tea and Challah toast, she cut the challah into large cubes and added dried cherries, blueberries, raisins and one tsp of orange oil, baked it off and drizzled it with maple syrup. Challah becomes Strata.

Who knew that Nancy was a Challah aficionado? She told the Tale of Four Challahs: 1) Rose’s Traditional Challah from hard copy of The Bread Bible (not so crazy about this one), 2) her personal whole wheat version with dried cherries, 3) Smitten Kitchen's Fig, Olive Oil, and Sea Salt Challah (a once per year treat), and finally 4) Rose’s improved Challah recipe, adding rehydrated dried cherries. Nancy concluded that Rose’s latest version was indeed better than the original Bread Bible recipe. It was moister, and it had some tang on account of the biga. In the end, she’ll return to her whole-wheat version, but if she ever needs a white challah, Rose's recipe will be her choice.

Marie B had never made Challah before and hers was a great success. For convenience sake, she made a few changes to the recipe, but it clearly didn’t suffer at all. Next time she will ambitiously attempt a 6 strand braid, as if 4 strands wasn’t complicated enough. Marie made French Toast with her Challah and said that it was “verrrry good.”

Our next bread for January 6th will be the Sweet Potato Loaf (p. 276). It will be our first following the holiday season, and an interesting way to start the New Year. I chose it because I am always interested in exploring ingredients that make bread sweet, and moist. It could be really good for turkey or ham sandwiches! 

Friday, December 4, 2015


Fluffy, light and open interior of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Challah Bread

I’ve never had homemade Challah. I’ve only bought from bakeries, and they’ve always been sweet, and fluffy, but not very chewy. I always considered it a fattening bread due to the amount of sugar and oil necessary to give it its character, and extend its shelf life. And I usually add to those calories by making a Ham and Cheese Strata, so I didn’t really expect much different making my own. I was impatient waiting for it to rest and rise, but I understood. I only hope it understands me too and doesn’t “hang around” my belly (if you know what I mean). I take after my family the way I love bread. Well, much to my surprise, and in spite of the honey, this Challah wasn’t so sweet, and it had a marvellous texture—fluffy yet very chewy. The biga was definitely present. I’m perfectly turned around. 

As you all know, I totally underestimated the amount of time the biga took to “cook.” It’s such a small amount of yeasty dough that transforms into a fermented, sour mass. We haven’t made biga since the pannetone, I think (or maybe one other time). I was curious; what's the difference between biga and dough starter? As it turns out, biga is used when a light open texture is desired (remember the Pannetone?) and it makes the bread less perishable. While it’s usually used in Italian breads, it’s application is perfect here because Challah has a tendency to go stale quickly. Ah! I see said the blind man. 

I chose this recipe for December because we are right on top of Hanukkah, and I was thinking of Mendy. Sorry to see him leave us, but I certainly understand and wish him well. One other note: as per Rose's suggestion, I used the recipe from Rose's blog page, rather than the Bread Bible.

Here’s my experience:


As I mentioned above, biga is certainly well worth the time, as it adds a complexity that rarely exists in store/bakery bought Challah.

Mix the Dough

I like cutting pieces of biga and soaking it in water. Not too difficult. 
Cutting the biga and dropping it into the water.
Biga, water and butter.

The dough mixed up well and was just a little tacky, the way Rose described.
The challah dough freshly mixed and ready for its first rise.

Let the dough rise

My challah dough took two hours to double in size and when I removed it to make the business folds, it was soft and very tender. 

The dough in its container before the first rise

The dough looks open and relaxed after its first rise.
After the first biz fold.

After the second biz fold. Notice how much bigger it is.

Shape the Dough 

Overall, this dough, like all bread doughs, was compliant and cooperative. All I had to do was press it into place—no rolling required. Too easy really.

After its first shaping--just 9 inches

After its second shaping--13 inches

After its last shaping--19 inches

I’ve never done a 4 braided bread before. I didn’t understand what was meant by starting in the middle, as I could barely start at the beginning. 
Half way through braiding

Reaching underneath

Finishing the braid

Giving it some extra love

I think bread dough is beautiful

Glaze the Challah

I used a very diluted egg glaze with poppy seeds.

Just before the Challah went into the oven

Bake the Challah
I know from eating many Challah, that there isn’t much of a crust to speak of. Mine baked in the minimum amount of time and I had no trouble with it over browning. I removed it from the oven when the internal temp reached 203-205 degrees. 
Homemade Challah just out of the oven