Challah Bread: How, What and Why: Background and Recipe

    October 2010            
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Divine Dough and Challah Recipe

By Laura Petrella

It is said that when all Jews in the world celebrate just one Shabbat all together, the messiah will appear, bringing with him the world to come.

Challah baking masters belong to their own tribe and prepare for that world, one Shabbat at a time…

Fagel stood at the table, nervously twisting her wedding ring, waiting for the challah cover to be lifted. The simple adornment, reminded Fagel of the veil, which Daniel had lifted just one year ago, just prior to placing the simple gold band on her left index finger and declaring her his wife according to the laws of Moses. She was willowy and intent and at the age of 19, Fagel had not yet perfected the craft of kneading dough. It was more gathered, the way G-d gathered the dust from the four corners of the earth, mixed it with water, and made Adam. Before G-d elevated the dust to human form, he removed a portion, making the mundane Adam the challah of the earth.

Fagel caught a glimpse of her new husband watching her and was embarrassed. She barely knew him and now he was intently watching her every move. Lowering her lids, Fagel took in the aroma of the tantalizing, twin challahs and silently prayed. Symbolizing the two portions of manna gathered by the Children of Israel in the desert, one challah was to be eaten on Friday night and the other saved for Saturday. Like a slice of heaven, Fagel’s challah represented the staff of life. No matter how you sliced it, her challah was interlaced with firmament and soul.

As ordinary as Fagel’s challah was, its simplicity was recognized and praised among the congregants. It had a dense, earthy texture and malty, nutty taste. Made of fine whole grain flour, savory olive oil, sea salt, raw sugar, free range eggs, live yeast and spring water, the bread appeared to be extracted from the earth, just as Eve’s first batch must have been, after leaving the Garden of Eden.

Earlier Fagel’s husband had walked into the kitchen and had given her the same look. She turned and focused on preheating the oven, setting up her kneading board and measuring once, then twice. No stand mixer for Fagel. She stirred the flour vigorously into the liquid with wet hands, toiling as her hair fell from her head covering onto her forehead. She thought about the yeast’s growth, her growth in Torah and of the life growing inside her.

The recipe, like motherhood at such a young age, was not for the faint of heart. The process required two to three hours for fermentation, shaping and proofing. The dough was finally braided into ropes, to create a heavenly crown. Normally, Fagel waited until precisely one hour before sundown on Friday, before deftly turning the loaves on their sides, washing them in egg whites and baking them on ancient, black cookie sheets acquired from her grandmother. Perhaps the unique taste was a result of the challot being baked at the very last second on erev Shabbat, at the exact moment that Eve’s eyes adjusted to the G-d’s radiant, celestial light and her soul mate came into view. Perhaps the dull and dented cookie sheets impart the matriarchic taste of the ages.

Fagel needed perfect quiet in order to execute the recipe. While the dough may have been somewhat forgiving, it required commitment and concentration and the perfect flick of the wrist to stud the tops completely with poppy seeds. Glad that she at least had a gas oven rather than electric, Fagel actually wished for an open hearth. How wonderful it would be, she thought, if the bread could acquire a tinge of apple wood smoke flavor, so that the nostrils could feast as well. G-d surely intended bread to taste of the sweat of the brow and a deep, rich, fruitwood-fragranced fire.

It was difficult to concentrate on the task at hand and the pressure was almost too much to bear. At one point, when the dough did not climb the sides of the bowl and double in bulk, Fagel prayed that G-d would just reduce the friction enough to let the dough rise. She worried that possibly the plastic wrap was not kosher or that her pride was causing the complication. She had to draw in her fears and trust that the King of Kings would turn up the warmth and stillness a notch. When Fagel separated the portion of dough to take challah, she stood stiff and unyielding and raised the dough above her head, declaring it as challah. Then she placed the tiny portion into the empty oven to burn, as a substitute for the dough is no longer given to the Kohen, so that a blessing would rest on her home.

As she waited for the loaves to rise again, Fagel wondered how many more comforting loaves she would produce in her lifetime, how many little lips would taste her divine dough and about portions. Children, during ancient Temple times, like portions of dough were offered to the Lord. First born boys were given to the priests, allowing gifts that G-d gives us to be placed in his service. So why then, did Moses decide that some first borns would serve and some would be redeemed? And why not girls? Wouldn’t all Israel have a portion in the world to come? How would G-d dole out the portion measure for measure?

Fagel didn’t know much about such lofty things, but she knew that she needed to capitalize on her joy of baking and carve out a profession. She could take the cookie community by storm or bake tempting hors d’oeuvres, bursting with sweet apples, tart cranberries, or marinated burgundy lamb. Her own bland kosher wedding cake was dowdy and tasteless to say the least. Even without training, she could have made an artistic confection, worthy of the occasion. All it needed was a vision, generous amounts of clove and allspice and a loving touch. Her dream, however tempting, would have to wait though.

Inspired by hospitality, Hannah’s challah is like Sarah’s, the grandmother of us all. In her lifetime, Hannah, a convert, has befriended many. Her challah is more than a mixture of ingredients that results in sustenance; it is inviting, like a warm hug, with just the right amount of squeeze. In her home, challah is not just served; it is ceremoniously unveiled and presented as a Shabbat gift to Hannah’s husband and welcome guests. A Shabbat table without many guests, she views as a jaw-dropping turkey, sans rich and savory gravy. Hundreds have experienced the convivial atmosphere of her Shabbat table, which produces sweet, memorable memories, drizzled with luscious chocolate. Hannah’s favorite Shabbat phrase, “Welcome, enjoy, be comfortable and loosen your pants,” is somewhat out of character for an orthodox woman. But she is Israeli and paradoxes are expected. Her second favorite phrase, which she utters even on weekdays is, “There’s always room for desert.”

Clearly Hannah never missed desert. In fact, from her silhouette, it appeared that was all she ate. As Shabbat drew near, Hannah could be found cooking, scrubbing little faces, delegating duties and inviting last minute guests to her table. When Abraham told Sarah to bake bread for the three strangers, who would announce the birth of Isaac, he must have known that Sarah’s challah was worthy of being served to angels. Like Sarah’s challah, Hannah’s remains fresh throughout the week and feeds all who hunger. Just a morsel is substantial and blissful enough to satisfy the heartiest appetite. Angels hover wistfully over Hannah’s Shabbat candles, like G-d’s presence, wishing that they could partake in the evocative, stunning indulgence.

The bakers yeast results in challah that is loose textured and the oil tenderizes the bread, keeping it fresh long after baking. The salt is not just a flavor enhancer; it restricts the yeast activity and strengthens the gluten, providing a spongy elasticity. Hannah’s recipe and ingredients are not extraordinary. It is the noble way in which she combines the ingredients that makes her challah transcend description. Her cup of sugar is just a little bit overflowing. The salt is poured into a small dish and then a pinch is removed and discarded to symbolize that she should not have too many bitter experiences. Finished loaves are washed with a combination of egg and water to give them a polished appearance, reminding us that we are emissaries of the Lord. And challah is taken as a mitzvah, in the hope that G-d’s love, generosity and abundance will be brought into her home.

Hannah is always running late or is out of time. Her Shabbat never begins early and her preparation is a whirlwind of activity and oversights. Shabbat may have kept the Jewish people, but Hannah has to work hard to keep Shabbat. Being a mother is demanding enough; working as an on-call psychologist is almost insane. But she follows the recipe that has been taped to the inside of her cabinet to the letter, timing each step and scraping the bowl. It is a hypnotizing and passionate process. Mix and transfer, knead and transfer, let the gluten make the dough soft and tacky. Form a ball, let it rise, punch it down, let it rest. Hannah notices how much the dough has to rest. How ironic it is that she realizes this, as she is rushing in order to be able to rest. She should have thought about the concept of rest last Shabbat and the one before. Her thoughts then turn to the smooth spiral that she will create, which symbolizes time. Every Shabbat lines up in sequence with the next, and the one before, creating a cycle of opportunities to tap into the soul.

The glaze is her secret recipe, delicate and smooth. Not just an egg wash, it contains a subtle rose petal aroma that tastes like poetry. The crumb is fine and the crust is tender and intricately woven. The person who happens to have the opportunity of devouring the inner-most spiral is never disappointed. Like soft, fluffy clouds of goodness, the challah rests on the palate and exudes warmth, gentleness and nostalgia. If only every guest could get a little pinch.

Hannah has a bit of trouble with her challah this week. Wouldn’t you know that she would find a blood spot in an egg? It is a bad omen that she cannot shake. Then the dough hook does not pull the ingredients into a tight ball. Only an experienced challah baker can work through that. She accomplishes each task and she wipes her hands on her starched, new apron. It was a gift from the synagogue for her unfailing dedication this past year. Each woman signed it with a bright sharpie marker and was sure to be looking for her signature when invited to Hannah’s Shabbat table. Those who did not have the forethought to sign at the top were sure to be disappointed. But they would not be disappointed to see the tzizit that Hannah added to the hem. Like Reb Yehudah’s wife, she attached fringes to hers and her daughters’ aprons. It does not matter that women are not obligated to wear tzizit. Hannah knows that challah baking requires one to wrap herself physically and emotionally in devotion.

The challot are placed on parchment paper, glazed, misted with pan spray and left to rise. The oven is carefully reduced in heat and Hannah places the loaves on the center rack, rotating them every 15 minutes. Finally the bread is a rich, golden color and she checks to ensure that the internal temperature registers 195oF. With a grand gesture, she grabs the hot pads, pulls the loaves onto the counter and almost forgets to turn them out onto cooling racks. Failure was averted as she came to her senses and she proclaimed her favorite bible verse, “Man does not live on bread alone, but by the utterance of G-d’s mouth does man live.”

Judith, a breadhead by her own right, bakes rosemary, potato bread, Irish soda bread and foccacia with the same intensity as her challah. A secular Jew, Judith feels the historical and cultural bond with her people and the spirituality of Shabbat, but does not adhere to its prohibitions. While she considers it silly not to be able to tear toilet paper or cut open an orange on the Sabbath, she finds that there is nothing inane about the heavenly value of hydrating any kind of flour and oiling any kind of bowl. Technique, she professes, is as important as ritual and her challah can only be described as tasting like manna, or a slice of the cosmos. Without a doubt, there is an omer (measure) of her honey challah stored in a jar within the Ark of the Covenant for the generations, wherever it may be.

Judith’s challah is perfectly balanced, rather than cloyingly sweet, with a hint of coriander seed and golden Israeli honey, made of star thistle and cotton flower. If Israeli honey has wound healing properties, she rationalizes, a steady diet of such health food, could possibly repair the soul.

How you prepare your challah is a reflection of your personality and sweet Judith can only produce a sweet, moist challah that is blissfully divine. If there are any leftovers, one cannot be timid. Otherwise, the next morning you will find that your silky, coveted piece of challah has become your little brother’s French toast.

She knows that not every guest will appreciate challah that tastes like rapture. Some palates may be tantalized by the alluring bouquet of fresh, tangy yeast. Others, not knowledgeable that challah must be pareve, may be yearning a buttery, flaky phenomenon. You just never know how one will perceive flavor. Tradition is what you make it. Judith debates whether or not to display a piece of honey comb on the serving platter. There is mystery and charm in such plating, but it could just as easily be determined a masterpiece as a flop.

Judith knows that the secret to a beautiful challah does not come from the sages; it is finding a warm, moist environment for the dough to rise. Searching for such an environment, Judith once thought herself a genius. The most warm, moist environment in the house (except for the tub) was the dishwasher! How appropriate; she opened the appliance and tested her hypothesis. Once the clean dishes were unloaded, she balanced the dough bowl precariously in the center of the plate rack and waited. Impatient, she taped a DO NOT OPEN note to the door, and went about the business of folding laundry, congratulating herself on her great intellect. Unfortunately, she did not share her brilliance with others, as the result was not even close to acceptable. The challah smelled like rancid penicillin and looked streaked and limp. Tasting like a bitter cholent made of tofu, dish soap and fava beans, the challah never made it to the Shabbat table. Although no food is ever wasted in Judith’s home, the challah went right into the compost heap; it could not even be fed to the dog.

Still looking for solutions, she then came upon an inspiration. Why not microwave a clean, damp dish towel to get the full effect of warmth and humidity? Getting the hot towel placed on the bowl was somewhat of a unique challenge. But Judith was not deterred. Once the towel was placed artfully over the bowl, Judith then thought, “Well, why not just set the parcel back into the microwave for rising?” She did so and carefully shut the door. Opening it in exactly 40 minutes she found that the process worked flawlessly and microwave proofing now is part of challah recipe reengineering history.

Judith also uses what all modern Jewish bakers use, insulated cookie sheets. She found that if you preheat the oven while the baking sheets are on the stove, they will be just warm enough to raise the hearty loaves to perfection. Sesame seeds also do not stick to them.

Judith has fidgety fingers. She knows that she will have to adjust her recipe, based on ambient humidity. She beat the yeast and tepid water until it was foamed up and frothy and then dissolved the honey and salt and added two extra large eggs and ¼ cup of canola oil. Using a bread machine, Judith controlled the mixing precisely and painstakingly added pinches and specks of flour until the dough mass congealed and pulled from the bowl.

The oversized loves were glazed with splashes of honey, making the house smell enticing, like an ode to relaxation and rest. Judith does not just create bread, she considers her loaves to be holy shewbreads, worthy of being set before the Lord on golden tables. The challah couldn’t be simpler to prepare, yet it gave the Shabbat table a heightened level of sophistication and covered with a silk embroidered cover, it gave family and guests sheer delight. Judith knows instinctively that she is the embodiment of the Shabbat queen as she covers the distinguishingly crisp, sweet challot with the ostrich blue cover and prepares the table with a personal flair. A melody of Chassidic tune plays in her head, as she it tempted to take a bite out of the tasteful, enchanting masterpiece. Her guests will linger long into the night.

Around the world, rose, lilly and wildflower bouquets, accented with pine and almond branches grace Shabbat tables and delicately finished wines are poured into silver cups. As it was in the beginning, wives and mothers compose gastronomic music drawn from the intense connections of their souls. The art of challah baking has been forged from mans’ relationship with the soil and woman’s delight. Whether it is fleshy or spicy, challah represents the spark of goodness that shines within each one of us. Possibly this night will be the one that we have all been waiting for; where every Jew partakes of two, freshly baked loaves of bliss; when the messiah stands behind our walls, looks in at the windows and sees through the cracks and Israel is transformed. Then, challah will longer need to be separated, as a sukkah of peace will be spread over our nation and the blessing of eternity will rest on our homes.

Morah Perel's Honey Challah Recipe


2 packages of yeast
2 1/2 lb. flour
½ cup oil
¾ cup honey
3 eggs beaten
½ teaspoon salt

Beaten egg for basting


1. Put yeast, 1 T. of honey and salt in a bowl with 1 cup of hot water (not boiling) and mix

2. Add flour and the rest of the ingredients

3. Knead the dough, adding additional water, if necessary, until the dough is mixable-not sticky and not stiff

5. Cover the bowl with a warm, wet towel. Allow the dough to rise in a warm area, about 1 hour. (Try the microwave)

4. Knead again, the longer the better. Allow to rise again between 1-1 ½ hours

6. Take challah- separate a 1 ounce ball of dough (the size of a marble) and burn it on foil in the oven, but not while the challah is baking. Do not say the bracha unless you double the recipe. Wrap and discard the challah.

7. Cut the dough in half and braid, or shape into loaves on parchment paper. Brush the top with beaten egg. Allow the loaves to double (30-45 minutes). Provide room in between loaves, or they will become attached.

8. Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour to 1 hour. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick. It is done when you tap it on the top and it sounds hollow.

Laura Petrella is a civil engineer, confectionary artist, fondant cake decorating instructor and Jewish mother. She has an eye for structure and beauty and brings a passion and knowledge of her crafts to all her work.


from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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