Learning to make challah was frustrating but the sweet payoff has motivated me to continue baking it every week for the past six years. It's now the heart of my family’s Shabbat ritual.
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