WELCOME to FeedTheSpirit with host Bobbie Lewis.
BREAD is a cornerstone of faith and ritual, Lynne Meredith Golodner writes in her book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, the first in a series of books about the many ways food carries rich associations with religious traditions. In Judaism, Lynne points out, the bread known as challah is the hallmark of the weekly Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
What most people don’t know is that “challah” actually refers not to a loaf made with eggs and oil but to the separation of a small portion of the dough before the bread is baked. In Numbers (15:17-21) the Israelites were commanded to take some of the dough and give it to the Temple priests as a “contribution for the Lord.” Since the Temple no longer exists, we fulfill this commandment by taking a piece of dough at least the size of an olive and burning it. This small sacrifice also reminds us of the destruction of our holiest site. Separating and burning a piece of the dough is called “taking challah.”
How do you pronounce and spell challah?
One word; many spellings. I spell this type of bread with a “ch” because the first sound is guttural, like in the German “ach.” But below you’ll see it spelled with just an “h” because that’s the way the recipe creator spells it. It’s a Hebrew word – there’s no “correct” English spelling!)
How do you make challah?
For us, challah is a life-long tradition. Soon after my husband and I were married we bought The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit. It became our guide as we created new traditions of our own from ancient customs. The book had a whole chapter on challah, including recipes and diagrams showing how to make braids with three, four or even six ropes of dough.
That photo of Joe and me with our very first challah was taken in 1973. We’re smiling—but the truth is: That loaf was hard as a rock! Completely inedible! We literally used it as a doorstop. I’m guessing we didn’t let the dough rise properly.
Needless to say, we’ve gotten a lot better at bread baking! Since he retired a year and a half ago, Joe has been baking all our bread. He tried a bunch of different challah recipes, but has stuck with this one, adapted from The Hallah Book: Recipes, History, and Traditions by Freda Reider. We eat it every Friday night to welcome the Sabbath!
The Family Hallah
- 1½ cups water, 1 cup boiling, ½ cup cold
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup sugar or honey
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. dry, granulated yeast (Note: a package of yeast is ¾ of a tablespoon)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 5 to 6 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
- ½ cup dark or golden raisins (optional)
- 1 egg yolk
- Poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional)
- Place the first six ingredients (water through eggs) in a four-quart mixing bowl in the order listed. This will ensure that the liquid is at the right temperature for fermentation before you add the yeast. Using a large wooden spoon, stir the flour in, a cup at a time, sweeping in a wide circle around the bowl until the flour is fully and evenly dispersed. (Joe uses a “dough whisk” specially designed for this purpose.) Keep adding flour and mixing until the dough begins to ball up and leave the sides of the bowl.
- Gather the dough into a ball. Sprinkle flour sparingly over and under the dough and start to knead it in the bowl. Fold the dough toward you with your palm and fingers, then push firmly down with your fist into the dough’s center. Rotate the bowl slightly each time, keeping the dough in a ball-like form. If the dough becomes too sticky, sprinkle it with a little more flour – but just a little! Knead for about 10 minutes. The dough should feel smooth and elastic.
- Turn the ball over so the kneaded seams are at the bottom and the top is smooth. Cover the dough with a clean, dry dish towel and allow it to rise until it is double in bulk. Test it by poking your finger about a half-inch into the dough. If the indentation remains when you pull your finger out, it’s risen enough.
- Punch down the dough by pushing your fist deep into the center. Gather the edges to the center and knead again in the bowl for a few minutes.
- Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise again until double in bulk. (This might take less time than the first rising.) Punch it down again and knead for a few minutes in the bowl. Then remove the dough and place it on a floured wooden board or countertop and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes uncovered.
- (This is the point where you would pinch off a small portion to “take challah.” Joe usually burns it on the stovetop.)
- If you use raisins, mix them into the dough and shape the challah into the desired form. This recipe makes two standard-sized loaves. If you don’t want to bother with braiding, you can make two large ropes of dough and coil them into rounds, or just bake the loaves in greased loaf pans.
- Place the loaves on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Cover them and allow them to rise until doubled in bulk.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Just before baking, mix the egg yolk with a tablespoon of water, and brush the mixture gently over the loaves; this gives it a shiny glaze. If you like, sprinkle the loaves with poppy seeds or sesame seeds.
- Bake about 45 minutes. You can tell f the bread is done if it makes a hollow sound when you tap it lightly on the bottom. Cool the bread on a wire rack for a few hours before eating.
HOW DO YOU WEAVE OR BRAID A CHALLAH LOAF?
Don’t worry! It’s easier than it looks!
Many cookbooks have step-by-step photos and sketches, but millions of cooks go online these days. Joe and I just added to the YouTube collection of challah videos with this little gem we produced in under 2 minutes! Most braided challah instructions show three strands. Joe likes to use four! So, if you really want to impress friends and family with an elaborately woven loaf—check out this 2-minute video featuring Joe at work.
Tah Dah! A four-strand challah!
And here we are with the finished product! I put myself in the picture for symmetry’s sake—I can’t take any credit for this one!
Another good challah recipe comes from one of my children’s favorite grade school teachers. Riva Thatch taught Hebrew at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich. for many years, and gave this recipe to all her students. My daughter, Miriam Gardin, says she was impressed by Mrs. Thatch not only because she was an excellent teacher but because of her efforts to survive the Holocaust.
“It wasn’t just luck; it was a lot of her own initiative, strength and creativity that got her through,” Miriam says, looking back more than 20 years. “I also remember her teaching us that they made soap in the ghetto from ashes and I thought that was almost unbelievable. Soap from ashes? No way! But Mrs. Thatch was totally believable!”
You can find Mrs. Thatch’s wonderful recipe, along with many more, in Lynne Meredith Golodner’s new The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.
Now it’s your turn!
Have you ever made bread “from scratch”?
What did you learn from the experience?
What bread traditions reflect your faith or your family’s culture?
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Fabulous video, Joe. The braid came together like magic. Inspired me to back challah again. Many thanks!
Joe Lewis says
A couple of notes on the challah recipe:
1. Frieda Rieder’s recipe takes only one bowl, so it’s very easy.
2. I add raisins when I mix in the flour. Our family likes lots of raisins.
3. Since we make a lot of bread, we have a jar of yeast, so it’s easy to measure a tablespoon.
4. Resting the dough for 15 minutes after the second rising seems to make a difference.
And one note on the braiding: I use four ropes because it’s easy to cut into quarters than into thirds.
Esther Allweiss Ingber says
I enjoyed reading your blog and seeing you and Joe pictured with your first hard as a rock!) home-baked challah.
Marianne Kestenbaum says
You’ve inspired me to try baking challah again…sometime. The only success I’ve had baking challah has been those made from the packaged, frozen, pre-made dough. However, I’m very good at heating up bakery-baked challah just a few minutes before dinner. Perfect crust! Loved the video with classic Joe commentary. And it was magic seeing the clump of braids turn into a recognizable loaf. I love Whole Foods Market apple cinnamon challah when they add enough cinnamon. Wish they baked it braded like the raisin challah.