May’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was pretty twisted – Ruth from The Crafts of Mommyhood challenged us to make challah! Using recipes from all over, and tips from “A Taste of Challah,” by Tamar Ansh, she encouraged us to bake beautifully braided breads. Challah comes in many different shapes, sizes and flavors. Raisins, chocolate chips and other additions can be kneaded into the dough, loaves can be topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, vanilla sugar or other flavorful sprinklings, and filled challahs can be a lot of fun and very tasty, too!
In almost all cultures, tradition and food go hand in hand. Growing up in a traditionally Jewish household, holidays and celebrations are always centered around the table. One of the most identifiable foods at the Jewish celebration table is the beautiful, braided bread – challah! Believe it or not, the word “challah” does not actually mean bread. Any whole loaves can be used at the Sabbath or holiday table for the traditional blessing. Challah, instead, is the word referring to the portion of bread which, in the days of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, was set aside and given to the high priests. These days the challah portion is taken before the bread is baked, and is ritually burned as an offering. There are specific guidelines concerning when the mitzvah (commandment) of challah is required – it has to do with how much flour is used.
Challah is a bread of celebration in Jewish tradition. At a time when white flour was considered a luxury, its use was reserved for either the wealthy or for festive events. In Judaism, the Sabbath is a weekly holiday, and therefore is a festive occasion. It was around the 15th century when Jews in parts of Austria and Germany adopted an oval braided loaf from their neighbors to make the Sabbath special. These fancy shaped loaves made with white flour were seen as a fitting way to honor the Shabbat (Sabbath), symbolized in Jewish culture as a queen, therefore deserving of the finest one can achieve. In honoring the Sabbath as a day of rest, two loaves are traditionally put on the table. This is generally seen as a representation of the double portion of manna provided to the Children of Israel on Fridays during their wandering in the desert after fleeing from Egypt. This double portion allowed them to maintain the commandment to not do “work” on the Sabbath.
RUTH’S GO-TO WHOLEWHEAT CHALLAH
2 (.25 oz.) packages (4½ teaspoons) (22½ ml) (15 gm) (½ oz) dry yeast
1 cup (240 ml) warm water (100°F/38°C)
½ cup (120 ml) (100 gm) (3½ oz) brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup (one stick) (120 ml) (115 gm/4 oz) margarine or unsalted butter – room temperature
2 tsp. (10 ml) (15 gm) (½ oz) salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups (480 ml) (280 gm/10 oz) whole wheat flour
2 cups (480 ml) (280 gm/10 oz) all-purpose flour
½ cup (120 ml) (50 gm) (1¾ oz) rolled oats (old fashioned work just fine!)
Additional flour for kneading (½ to 1 cup) (120 to 240 ml) (70 to 140 gm) (2½ to 5 oz)
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. water for glaze
- In the bowl of your stand mixer, dissolve yeast in warm water. Allow to stand about 5 minutes until creamy/foamy.
- With paddle attachment beat 3 eggs, sugar, margarine or butter, flours and oats into the yeast mixture.
- Add flours and oats and mix until it becomes difficult to mix. Switch to the dough hook.
- Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic, adding flour as/if needed. By hand, this should take about 10-12 minutes.
- Form dough into a round, compact ball. Turn in oiled bowl, cover with a towel. Let rise in warm area until doubled, approx 2 hours.
- Once dough has doubled, punch down. Recover with towel, allow to rise again for an hour.
- Punch the dough down again, divide in two. Shape each half as desired and place onto parchment covered baking trays.
- Cover with the towel and allow to rise another hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Brush loaves with egg wash. Sprinkle with vanilla sugar/sesame seeds/poppy seeds/other topping here if desired.
- Bake for 30-40 min until loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving.
What makes challah truly stand out is the distinctive braid. There are many ways, though, in which challah can be shaped. While the recipes are important to this type of bread, it really is the shaping which makes it special. Braiding is an intertwining of separate pieces into one combined entity. This is symbolic of the intertwining of the everyday and the holy, and of the coming together of family and friends. Some notes about the most common braids and shapes:
- Three strand braid: This is the easiest of the braids – especially if you have ever braided hair. Many attribute a word to each of the three strands used: zachor (remember), shamor (observe or guard), and b’dibur echad (with one word). The braiding of the three words is a physical reminder of the importance of remembering and observing the Sabbath as one commandment.
- Four strand braid: There is not a lot of information written as to the cultural significance of the four strands. Rather, it is viewed as a way to elaborate on the more common three strand braid in order to fulfill the obligation to beautify the commandment and make it more special.
- Six strand braid: There are traditionally two challah loaves on the Sabbath table. Using the six strand braid, that brings twelve pieces to the table. These twelve strands can be symbolic of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel. Many also use the twelve pieces to represent the twelve “showbreads” used in the Jewish Temple on special occasions.
- Four strand braided round: Traditionally used on the Jewish New Year, round breads have no beginning and no end. They are used as an example of the cycle of life, the cycle of the year, and the continuity of the Jewish calendar.
Challah is shaped in a variety of ways for different Jewish holidays. Prior to fasting on Yom Kippur, the Day of Attonement, many people eat loaves shaped like ladders to symbolize the desire to rise up to greater heights. On Shavuot, the holiday commemorating receiving the ten commandments, loaves can be shaped like tablets. Bird shaped challah loaves are symbols of protection and forgiveness.
HONEY WHITE CHALLAH
1 ½ cups (360 ml) warm water, separated
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) (15 gm/½ oz sugar
2 Tbsp. (2-2/3 packets) (30 ml) (18 gm) (2/3 oz) dry active yeast
½ cup (120 ml) honey
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) oil (light colored vegetable oil, or olive oil if you prefer)
4 large eggs
1 ½ tsp. 7½ ml) (9 gm) (1/3 oz) salt
5 cups (1200 ml) (700 gm/25 oz) all-purpose (plain) flour, plus more as needed (up to 8 or 9 cups total)
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. water
- In mixer bowl/large mixing bowl combine ½ cup warm water, 1 tbs sugar and 2 tbs yeast.
- Allow to proof for approximately 5 minutes until foamy.
- To the yeast mixture add the remaining water, honey, oil, eggs, salt and 5 cups of flour.
- Knead (by hand or with your mixer’s dough hook) until smooth, adding flour as needed. Knead for approx 10 minutes.
- Transfer dough to a clean, oiled bowl, turn to coat or add a bit more oil on top. Cover bowl with a kitchen/tea towel.
- Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. Punch down the dough.
- Divide it into two sections. Use one half to make each loaf, shaped or braided as desired.
- Place loaves on parchment lined or greased baking sheets, cover with a towel, allow to rise 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Brush tops loaves with egg wash. Sprinkle with seeds or toppings ifdesired.
- Bake loaves 30-40 minutes until done. Cool on wire racks. Makes 2 loaves.
There are two basic methods for forming the strands used to braid challah. The first, and easiest, is to simply roll snakes between your hands like when working with clay or play dough. The second method is to use a rolling pin to roll out a flat disc of dough, then using your hands to roll the disc into a snake, rolling the snake on the counter with your fingers to achieve the length you need. This second method does result in a better rise, but either way works well. Whichever method you use, form your strands such that they are thinner at the ends and fuller in the middle. This will help your challah rise in the center.
If you are new to braiding, do yourself a favor and practice before you shape your dough! Over working the dough will make for a tough loaf. Practice your braiding or shaping with clay or play dough first in order to become more comfortable. Egg wash is used to enhance the top crust of the challah. It adds shine and crispness, and enhances the beauty of the breads. While a single coat is sufficient, a double coat works beautifully. Brush your beaten egg and water mixture on the loaves directly after shaping, then allow to proof. Brush again just before baking, adding any toppings you were planning to use.
4 cups (960 ml) (360 gm/20 oz) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 cup (240 ml) warm water
1 package (2¼ teaspoons) (11¼ ml) (7 gm) (¼ oz) package rapid rise yeast
½ (120 ml) (115 gm/4 oz) cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. (5 ml) (6 gm) salt
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. water
- Measure flour, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl.
- In a separate bowl (or in the bowl of your stand mixer) combine water and yeast, allow to sit 5 minutes until foamy.
- Add 1 ½ cups of the flour mixture to the water and yeast mixture, beat until well combined.
- Cover with a dish towel, let stand 30 min. Add two eggs to the dough, beat again.
- By hand or with your dough hook knead in the remaining flour mixture. Knead approximately 10 minutes.
- Transfer to oiled bowl, cover, let rise one hour. Punch down dough, knead approximately 3 minutes.
- Divide dough in two. Shape each half as desired (3, 4, or 6 strand braid).
- Place loaves on parchment covered or greased cookie sheets, cover and allow to rise one hour.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush loaves with egg wash. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees, bake until golden crust forms for about 25-30 minutes.
Storage & Freezing Instructions
Once cooled, challah loaves which will not be eaten right away (or in the next couple of days) should be bagged in heavy duty freezer bags. Remove excess air from the bag before securing it tightly (tying a knot or using tape). Put the bagged loaf/loaves into the freezer as soon as possible to ensure fresh taste; frozen challah will keep approximately three months.