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Mastering the Art of Challah Making

Thursday, October 10, 2013
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I made this Challah for last year's break the fast.

When my 9-year-old son was enrolled in BZBI preschool years ago, we could sign up to receive a challah every week. Those were tasty challahs.

But when he changed schools, I had to get my weekly challah elsewhere. You know what I found out? Not a lot of good challah around these parts. I couldn't find a challah that had the perfect balance of egg, dough and sweetness. 

Since challah symbolizes the manna that fell from heaven when the Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years, I think it should be one of the most delicious things on the Shabbat table. I wondered if I could do it better myself. 

I had made challah a few times over the years, the first when I was a senior in college. I wanted to impress this boy who invited me to a picnic at an outdoor production of As You Like It.  It was a temperamental bugger, that challah. I threw out two batches of yeast that refused to bubble. Then my first loaf didn’t rise at all. My second rose but refused to swell once braided.

Late in the evening when I finally pulled the shiny, caramel colored loaf out of the oven and tapped on the soft underside to hear its beautiful hollow drum sound, I felt a sense of triumph over this obstinate bread. That’s right, challah! I own your doughy butt! I even did a dance in my small kitchen. The only thing more satisfying was the look on the boy’s face when he took a bite.

That look, that enjoyment, is what motivated me to start making weekly challah six years ago. For such a labor-intensive bread, it’s made with simple ingredients – yeast, water, flour, eggs, salt, oil and sometimes honey to sweeten. I can’t tell you the exact amount of honey I use because I just swirl it in with the eggs until it looks like enough, but it’s more than any recipe I’ve read.

The challah I make today is an adaptation of the three-loaf recipe from the Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan. I always make three loaves, giving two away to friends or neighbors. Ask me to make one loaf and I will be lost. 

I use a mixer, but I didn't own one in the beginning so I've mixed the dough by hand, too. I have experimented with all kinds of ingredients, even orange juice. To save time I have tried making the dough on Thursdays and doing an overnight cold rise in the refrigerator, but it never tastes as good. I start my challah at 6:30 a.m. on Fridays so the dough is finished by the time I have to take the kids to school and ready to punch down and braid by around 10:15 a.m.

I consulted YouTube to learn how to do four- and six strand braids. I have about five kinds of honey in my pantry, which I rotate, but I always use Tupelo for High Holiday challah. I make cinnamon sugar challah, Nutella challah and challah pizza. For the pizza, I flatten the dough and layer it with tomatoes, olives, arugula, cheese and whatever else is in my fridge that looks good. I am particular about my yeast (Red Star) and my flour (King Arthur), and I never use raisins or poppy seeds.

I try to keep my schedule light on Fridays so I can get it done, but every once in a while I have to take a day off (a Challiday) because if I am out of the house for too long and it isn’t timed right, the challah will be too flaky. But I will never give it up because challah is the heart of our family’s Shabbat ritual. It is the one thing I make that my picky kids eat with relish. My challah opens and closes the meal – for Friday night dessert, I spread Nutella over slices and sprinkle it with Fleur du Sel. I dare you to find something that tastes better.

But what I enjoy most is how people react when eating my challah, whether my family, neighbors, friends or local chefs. I mastered something that used to master me. And our Shabbat is sweeter because of it.

 

The Balabusta Rhymes Challah
Recipe by Jennifer Raphael

Yield: Two large loaves or three small/medium loaves
 
Ingredients:
 
• 2 packages or 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast (Red Star is my fave)
• 1 tsp sugar
• 1 cup hot (but not scalding) water
• 3 eggs
• honey (1/2 cup to almost a full cup, I eyeball it) or sugar (1/3-1 cup depending on sweetness you like.)
• ½ cup warm water 
• ½ cup vegetable oil
• ½ to a full tsp salt
• 7-12 cups of flour (I don't know exactly)
• one wisked egg for the egg wash
 
1) Mix the yeast, the tsp of sugar and the very warm water in a small bowl. Set aside. Let the yeast proof for ten minutes. It should bubble and froth up nice. If it doesn't, throw it out and start over. 
 
2) While the yeast is proofing, whisk the eggs with the honey or sugar in a bowl of a standing mixer. If you don’t have a mixer, a large mixing bowl will do. Add the water, vegetable oil and salt. 
 
3) Once the yeast has proofed, pour the yeast mixture into the egg and honey mixture. Combine: Mix by hand with a wooden spoon or with a paddle attachment on a standing mixer 
 
4) Add flour one cup at a time, mixing in between additions. If you are hand mixing, stir the bejeez out of it in between additions. In the mixer, mix on low – medium/low between additions.
 
5) Sprinkle some flour on a wooden cutting board or pastry board. When the dough starts to leave the sides of the bowl, place it on the floured board and start kneading. Add flour when it becomes too sticky. (The dough will be a little sticky since you are using honey to sweeten … but it shouldn't be all-over-your-fingers-tough-to get-off sticky.) When the dough feels as soft as a baby's butt, it is ready to go back in your bowl, covered with a tea towel.
 
You can let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature in the kitchen. I sometimes place my dough in the oven to rise (don’t turn the oven on). If you let it rise at room temperature, the dough should double in bulk, most likely cresting the top of your bowl (about one to three hours).
 
6) Once risen, punch the dough down to get the air out of it. Put it back on your pastry board and work it a little.
 
7) Cut the dough into equal parts for either two larger loaves or three smaller ones. Cut each part into four equal sections and then make four long ropes from each section to braid it. (If you want to keep it simple, only use three strands.) Check on You Tube for directions on how to make a four braid challah.
 
8) Place your loaves on a buttered cookie sheet. I use Silpats, which are less messy, and you don’t have to grease the pans. Cover and let them rise for one to two hours. Ideal is about 1-1:30. NO LONGER than 2 hours, or it will be flaky and drecky. 
 
9) When the challahs are ready for baking, whisk your remaining egg and brush them lightly with an egg wash. I convect bake my challahs. I heat my convection oven to 350 degrees and bake them for 25-30 minutes. It may be similar for regular ovens. When the challahs are done they should look caramel in color and should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Shabbat Shalom!

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