Challah, Take Two

When I first started this column almost a year and a half ago, my first recipe was for challah, the braided egg bread used to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath.

I used the recipe my husband, Joe, uses almost every week and included a little video showing how to braid the challah. If you want to be really wowed by challah-braiding techniques, check out this video from Israel.

I don’t want to make a habit of repeating recipes – and indeed this week’s offering is a different recipe for challah – but I wanted to tell you about a something special that took place in Detroit on October 23.

A great big baking event

It was the Great Big Challah Bake, and it was the opening event of a worldwide event called the Shabbos Project.

Shabbos (SHAbiss) is the Yiddish word for Sabbath and many Jews of Eastern European descent still pronounce it that way, especially Orthodox Jews. In Hebrew it’s ShaBAHT.

The Shabbos Project was started last year by Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, as a Jewish unity project. The idea was to have all Jews in the country, no matter what their usual level of religious practice, observe one Sabbath in October together.

The celebration included a challah bake on Thursday night, Sabbath dinners on Friday night (since Sabbath starts at sundown Friday), religious services and lunches on Saturday, and a huge outdoor concert after the Sabbath ended at nightfall.

People invited others to Sabbath meals in their homes, and several communities held large outdoor dinners that attracted hundreds. The final concert in Johannesburg attracted 50,000.

Celebrating the Sabbath together

This year Dr. Goldstein took the project global. More than 400 cities around the world set up Shabbos Project committees to try to replicate the South Africa experience October 23, 24 and 25.

I went to the Great Big Challah Bake as a reporter for the Detroit Jewish News. It was held in a large banquet hall. When I walked in I was amazed.

Oblong tables covered with blue plastic tablecloths fanned out across the hall. Each table held 14 large foil roasting pans; each pan contained everything needed to make a batch of challah: a 2-lb. sack of flour, a 16-oz. bottle of water, two eggs and small plastic containers of carefully measured-out yeast, sugar, salt, and oil.

Each pan also held rubber gloves, a mixing spoon, a large plastic mixing bowl, a recipe card and an apron emblazoned with the name of the event.

More than 300 women of all ages from across the religious spectrum – from very Orthodox to non-observant – participated in the Great Big Challah Bake. Some bake challah regularly for their families. Some had never baked bread before.

Together they mixed and shaped loaves of challah, which they took home to bake.

The event was free. Materials were provided by anonymous donors.

Mixing and kneading

We dumped our yeast and sugar into the mixing bowl and added the water. We let the mixture sit until it bubbled. Then we added the eggs, oil and salt, and finally the flour, mixing with our hands when the dough got too stiff to mix with the spoon.

I enjoyed mixing up challah dough while chatting with the half-dozen women around me and learning a little bit about the history and meaning of challah.

The term “challah” actually refers to a portion of the dough that was taken out and burned, a commandment that dates to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, said Henna Millburn, one of the event coordinators. Today instead of burning it’s acceptable to take a small portion of the dough, wrap it twice and throw it away.

Baking challah is a “labor of love” that brings women together, said Millburn. “What binds us is not the ingredients, it is the Torah we share as Jews,” she said.

I offer this story because other religious or social groups may want to do something similar. Cooking with others can be great fun and it’s a good inter-generational activity.

You don’t have to make challah or even bread. Pick a food that has meaning for your group and a recipe that can be assembled in one place, transported somewhere else and cooked there a little later. This would certainly work for making cookie dough.

Get a group of volunteers together and set things up to make the process easy. Use disposable everything to minimize cleanup. If it’s something wet, like soup, provide a large, covered plastic container so participants can take the uncooked dish home.

If the recipe involves a waiting period – like the 30 minutes for the challah dough to rise before shaping it – plan to share some stories or use the time to hold a brief prayer service.

My challah wasn’t as beautiful as my husband’s – I never did get the hang of braiding it, and it turned out rather blob-like. But it tasted wonderful, and so I’m happy to pass on this easy recipe.

(And you don’t have to braid it. The bread would be equally delicious baked in a loaf pan, or you can make round loaves by making balls of dough – a larger ball in the center and six smaller balls around it, all touching.)

Challah tops our list of holy breads

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!


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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