Challah, Take Two

Challah loaves by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr Creative Commons.

Challah loaves by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr Creative Commons.

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

Detroit's Great Big Challah Bake attracted more than 300 women.

Detroit’s Great Big Challah Bake attracted more than 300 women.

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.

Everything was provided -- and measured out -- to help participants mix up challah dough.

Everything was provided — and measured out — to help participants mix up challah dough.

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.

My challahs weren't perfectly shaped but they were tasty!

My challahs weren’t perfectly shaped but they were tasty!

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.)

Sabbath cholent is heaven-sent

Cholent bakers in Bialystok prepare their pots for the communal oven.

Cholent bakers in Bialystok prepare their pots for the communal oven.

Brrr…as I write the snow is bucketing down once again, joining the several feet of white stuff already piled around my house. It’s perfect weather for cholent.

Cholent (rhymes with “DULL lent”) is a stew prepared for the mid-day meal on the Sabbath. In traditional Jewish practice, lighting a fire and cooking are prohibited on the Sabbath, which starts at sundown on Friday and lasts until dark on Saturday night.

Slow cooking before slow cookers

Cholent, photo by noblepig

Cholent, photo by noblepig

In deepest winter it’s hard to go a whole day without hot food. What to do? Creative housewives developed a way to cook a hot-pot type dish at slow temperatures for a long time. That way they could have a hot dish without lighting a fire or putting food on the flame during the Sabbath. In Europe, they called the resulting dish cholent. The first references to it were in the 12th century.

No one really knows where the word came from. The best derivation I’ve seen is that it comes from the French chaud and lent – hot and slow. It could possibly come from shul ende – Yiddish for the end of synagogue services.

In Hebrew they call it hamin, which means hot. North African Jews prepare a similar Sabbath dish called dafina.

In the old days, women would put all their cholent ingedients into a heavy pot and put into a large communal oven, along with everyone else’s cholent pots, to simmer until the next day.

A heavenly scent

With the possible exception of baking bread, there’s no homier smell than cholent! It usually starts to be fragrant in the wee hours of the morning. By the time you wake up, you’ll start salivating in anticipation of a delicious mid-day dinner.

Cholent – called schalet in German – inspired poet Heinrich Heine. In the middle of his long poem Princess Sabbath are several verses extolling the dish, including these:

“But at noon, as compensation,
There shall steam for thee a dish
That in very truth divine is—Thou shalt eat to-day of schalet!

“Schalet, ray of light immortal!
Schalet, daughter of Elysium!”
So had Schiller’s song resounded,
Had he ever tasted schalet,

For this schalet is the very
Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing…

If you want to make a cholent, you don’t have to follow the recipe below. Feel free to improvise with ingredients. If you don’t want to use beef, use a turkey thigh or skinless, boneless chicken thighs – you can even make it vegetarian! Use sweet potatoes along with or instead of white potatoes. Use rice instead of barley. I would say the essentials are onions and garlic, some sort of starch (potatoes, beans, barley) and some root vegetables that won’t turn to mush with long cooking. For a vegetarian cholent, substitute vegetable broth for the water to give it some extra flavor.

Some people cook eggs in the cholent. The eggshell turns brown, and the eggs absorb some of the meaty flavor. You can also cook dumplings with the stew.

Plan ahead

For Sabbath (Saturday) lunch, start on Thursday night or early Friday morning by soaking a cup or two of dried beans in a bowl of water. They should double in volume. 

On Friday afternoon, before dinner, assemble the cholent and set it to cook in a slow cooker or in an oven set at 200 degrees.

If your Sabbath is another day, adjust these directions. Cholent would make a great after-church Sunday dinner! Start by soaking the beans on Friday night or Saturday morning.

You might want to check it in the morning to be sure it isn’t too dried out, but don’t add too much water; you don’t want it to be soupy. It should be moist, not wet, and have a nice, brown crust on top.

If you have leftover cholent, it’s good reheated for a lunch or supper. If you eat up all the meat but still have lots of vegetables and gravy left, turn it into soup! Just mash everything up, add a little more water and heat for lunches during the week.

(A confession: the last two times I made cholent I forgot to take photos! So I snagged these photos from the Web — what a wonderful resource!)