Friday is Challah Time
Where do you find ritual when your parents’ traditions leave you cold?
Might I suggest a loaf of bread?
The loaf I’m talking about is an enriched, brioche-style number called challah. Learning how to make it right and, more importantly, how to make it my own, has become meditation, therapy, a pathway to family love, and, at times, even a backdoor to spiritual life. And if you don’t want to read all this woo-woo stuff you can skip to the recipe at the end.
The roots of my challah ritual go back to when my stepmother found religion and announced that Shabbat dinners would be served every Friday to what had been a staunchly secular family. Bogus, bogus, bogus, I thought at the time. Yes, the food was filling and the wine, plentiful (something an out-of-work college-grad appreciated) but when mouthing the Shabbos blessings I felt as if I were being forced to read the script for a part that wasn’t in my contract. This bogusness was best expressed by the store-bought challah that sat on the Sabbath table. With its overbearing sweetness and dried out crumb it seemed more like day-old cake. No surprise that half of it was always left uneaten.
And so, I strayed to other loaves. After quarreling with my stepmother and failing to find work in New York I left for a job in Eastern Europe. In the godless lands of the former communist empire I came to appreciate Moscow’s musky black Soviet factory bread. Journeying south to the newly independent republics of the Caucasus I ate many Georgian hachapouri and, to avoid any evidence of ethnic bias, I put away equal amounts of Armenian lavash. In Sarajevo I pondered the end of the Serbian siege over piles of lipinja wrapped snug around bullets of cevapi. And in Paris, my last expat residence before returning to New York, I was seduced by the sexy tic-tic-tic the baguettes made cooling in my mesh bag as I toted them back to a lover in the 3rd arrondisement who was studying to be a mime.
I put all that bread behind me when I returned to New York and met Esther.
Our relationship started or, rather, almost didn’t start with my complete denial of any connection to Judaism. On one of those confusing are-we-friends-or-is-this-a-date? evenings that often mark the beginning of a contemporary romance, I blurted out that I didn’t think I could ever be with a Jewish woman. “Okee doke,” Esther remembers saying to herself, “that’s that with Paul Greenberg .” But time and tide turned friendship to courtship to the point where we moved in together, had a son and began having, yes, Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings. Only this time, I vowed, the challah would be different.
Bread formulas like religious strictures are often presented as if they are inviolable wisdoms upon which you must not improvise. This, it turns out, is profoundly untrue.
As a freelance writer I often have more time than money. And so bread baking has become an integral part of my job description as dad and partner. My standard loaf, a 100% whole wheat sourdough ends up costing about 80 cents. Cooking time and effort is far exceeded by its rewards. My son, now age 14, thinks store-bought bread “tastes kind of weird.”
Challah, though, is a different creature. To do it right you need to be a mensch.
First, you have to commit. You must clearly establish when dinner is going to be served, count backwards by four and half hours and plan to be hanging around the house for the entire afternoon.
Next, you must be generous. Unlike my workaday 80 cent loaf, a challah requires a sizable clutch of eggs, good, quality honey, and saffron which prices out at around $1500 a pound (ok, only a few threads are used for every loaf, but still…).
After generosity comes patience. A good challah requires four separate rises. One after the initial kneading. A second to “de-gas” the dough. A third after you’ve divided out the loaf into a family of three separate “boules” and a fourth after you’ve stretched out your family of boules into strands and brought them together into a braided unity.
Additionally, you must get out of your fixed mindset. A proper challah is braided from the middle and not the terminal points. This is anathema to those of us who want things to begin at the beginning and end at the end. Further complicating the matter, the braid going down one side of a challah is different from the braid going the other way. Left of center you braid overhand, tapering to the left as you go. In the other direction you do an underhand maneuver. Sure, you can do a challah linearly — a single braid starting at the beginning and ending at the end. But when you do that your challah looks like a mummy.
Abandoning your fixed mindset also means questioning the formula itself (in bread cookbooks recipes are called “formulas”). When I began looking for a challah formula I could work with, all the Jewish cookbooks I consulted led me to loaves that resembled those store-bought ones I detested. I finaly found what I was looking for in a book by a former Eastern Orthodox seminarian. But even his challah wasn’t quite right. Bread formulas, like religious strictures, are often presented as if they are inviolable wisdoms upon which you must not improvise. This, it turns out, is profoundly untrue. Over the years I’ve backed off on the sweetness, upped the olive oil, and introduced a kneading method whereby the outside is worked into the inside in a series of rapid convolutions. It’s hard to describe. It works. But not always.
Which brings me to another guiding principle. You must be prepared for failure and self-forgiveness. Sometimes even a perfectly braided challah malfunctions. An overstretched strand can blow a gasket. A hyperactive batch of yeast can swell your loaf beyond all recognition, blurring all that careful braiding into an unseemly blob. But the key here is that even when it looks bad, it can taste good.
And it is with taste that the last, most important aspect of the challah bond is sealed. You must, in the end, like the challah you make and make the challah you like. Looking back on those early force-fed Shabbat dinners at my parents’, I realize that eating someone else’s challah made me feel as if a belief system I didn’t believe in was being crammed down my throat. It was only when I began dismantling the challah formula and reassembling it according to my preferences that I came to love my bread and my own Friday night dinners. And, funnily enough, the only person who likes my challah more than I do is my stepmom.
What challah has taught me is that, in the end, the only ritual worth replicating is one that is braided through with your own family’s life force. Is God the source of that force? People within even a happy family are likely to disagree on this question.
In the meantime, together, we can all break bread.
My mess-free way of making challah
4 cups white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspooon dry active yeast
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup warm water
2 whole eggs
2 eggs, separated
a pinch of saffron powder or turmeric if you’re feeling cheap
a good shallow bowl
4 cup measuring cup
parchment baking paper dusted with cornmeal
a paper or reusable shopping bag large enough to cover the loaf
long shallow baking pan
baking stone (ideally)
When I make challah and indeed when I make all bread, I like to do all the kneading in a large metal bowl and all the liquid ingredient mixing in a single large 4 cup measuring cup to limit the mess. Starting with that bowl, put the flour, dry active yeast, and salt and mix well.
Meanwhile in a 4 cup measuring cup put in 3/4 cups water, separate the eggs and put just the yokes in the measuring cup. Set aside the whites for later. Add into the cup first the olive oil and then, using the same spoon add the honey. I do this in that order because after you’ve used the spoon for olive oil, the honey slides right off. Also add into this liquid mixture the saffron powder or turmeric. You can also at this phase, if you’ve got it, add 1/2 cup of sourdough starter if you like a more sour loaf. Mix until frothy with a hand beater or whisk.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Mix with a large spoon until liquid has been incorporated into the flour. Then begin kneeding. Knead for about 10 minutes. I stretch out the dough with the heal of my hand in all four directions, then fold and fold again and do the process over again. But do it whichever way you like. In the end you’ll want a slightly sticky, soft dough that passes the “window” test (i.e. hold the dough up to the light and see if you can stretch out a translucent window of dough that allows light to shine through. If the dough gets too stick add some flour. If it gets to dry add some water. You can also spin the dough in the measuring cup to get all of the water/egg/honey mixture out (and also, again, limit your clean up time).
Put a few drops of olive oil in the bowl and then roll the kneaded ball of dough in the oil, lightly coating it. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rest for about an hour or until it’s doubled in size. After that time knead again for 2 minutes to “punch down” the dough. Let it sit for another hour. After this second rise is done, divide the dough into three balls. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes. Then roll out each ball into a strand about 2 feet long.
Now it’s time to braid. I can’t really describe this very well, so have a look at this video. When you’re done braiding, dust a sheet of parchment paper with corn meal. At this point, if you have a large enough flat baking tray to fit the challah you can beat the egg whites and then very carefully “bathe” the entire loaf in the egg whites, turning once or twice to make sure the whole thing is coated. You can also just brush on the egg white but, then you miss the bottom which I think is a mistake. After the egg white bath put the loaf on the corn-meal dusted parchment paper. Cover with the shopping bag (make sure it’s clean before you do this!). Let the loaf rise for about an hour. 30 minutes into the rise, preheat your oven to 350° .
After an hour, use a pastry brush to brush on the remaining egg white for a “second coat.” Then spray with olive oil. If you don’t have an olive oil sprayer, just dip the pastry brush in some olive oil and do the hand-flick method.
When the oven is at temperature, slide the loaf on the parchment onto a cookie sheet and then, after you’ve opened the oven slide the loaf/parchment onto the now-hot baking stone. If you don’t have a baking stone just put the whole cooking sheet with parchment into the oven.
Bake for 20 minutes. If you have any egg white left, do a third coat of egg white at the 20 minute mark with your pastry brush. Rotate the loaf 180° and then bake for another 20 minutes (total baking time is 40 minutes).
Remove from the oven when the love is shiny and a rich brown color.
Put on a cooling rack for 20 minutes before serving.
Note this recipe was adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I have been baking this recipe for a dozen odd years and it has changed enough over that time to be something of an improvisation.