A Challah A Day: A Rabbi’s Intensive in Baking
In my years as a rabbi and mother I had never baked a challah from scratch. Back in my congregational days, I would pick up a challah at the pre-school, stop by a bakery, or even pull a store-bought pre-braided challah from the freezer.
In my mind and in my schedule, there just was no time for the multiple steps of proofing the yeast, kneading the dough, letting it rise. Certainly not weekly. Moreover as a pioneering woman rabbi, I did not want to be stuck in the kitchen.
Generally, my family recalls that I prepped leftovers. Then, there were those negative ideas about white flours and carbs, so bread consumption was minimal. Despite all of this, my now-adult children have been making challah for years, each having settled on a preferred recipe. I recently started a self-guided intensive in challah baking as part of my exploration of celebratory yeast breads for my Chocolate Babka Project.
Researching chocolate babka’s popularity and history had led me to what I call “cognate bread cakes.” These multi-cultural, special occasion, egg-rich, yeasty treats (baba, pandora, kugelhopf, kulich, and more) are distinct and universal. They mix with home and homeland as well as with religions. In a Joseph Campbell sense they are heroic foods, voyagers from home to home, returning to festive tables season after season. I imagined that baking each of them, and of course tasting them, would help me understand more. I debated where to begin: In order of development? Complexity of preparation?
To prepare, I spent weeks at the library gathering as much context as possible and to collect recipes. I bought unbleached flours, a food thermometer, a rolling pin, baking pans, raisins, sugar, oil, and parchment paper. I tried to sort through the varied instructions I read. Should I use all-purpose or bread flour? Which is better for covering rising dough, a tea towel or a plastic bag? And, what about the yeast? Instant dried, active dry, or compressed fresh? Which brand? I re-read the technical terms for bread making: fermenting, proof, shape, punching. Do I really need to proof the yeast as many recipes require? Should the dough rise three times as some claim, and if it really makes the bread tastier, why doesn’t everyone advise it? Do all ingredients need to be at room temperature? Is it better to mix by hand or to use a dough hook? Bakers suggest determining doneness by tapping the bottom of the bread for a hollow sound but how do you do that if it is hot from the oven? All of it felt overwhelming and I was procrastinating, fearful to be a novice at this stage in my life.
How would I manage making a challah given the multiple complexities, artistry, and science of bread baking? I was afraid to confront my inexperience in this Jewish tradition until I took my grandchildren to a challah baking workshop while their parents were out of town. The recipe had been decided. The ingredients were pre-measured. The tools were provided. The instructor was patient and skilled. The outcome was fragrant and billowy. We devoured it in the car home.
After the challah workshop, I decided it was time to make it on my own. With its biblical roots it is among the oldest of bread traditions. And, after all, it’s my bread tradition. That workshop launched me into seven daily recipes, each a success:
Day 1: Leah Koenig’s encouraging Introduction to Challah 101 and extremely precise recipe in Modern Jewish Cooking guided me through my first independently-baked challah.
Day 2: Next, I ventured into my daughter’s go-to challah recipe from the Kramer/Shein family. Handed down from generation to generation, it boasts fragrant nutmeg and inspires me to try cinnamon next time.
Day 3: Melissa Clark’s recipe at the New York Times calls for orange juice and olive oil, an exotic combination. Next time: more orange zest.
Day 4: Bread expert Beth Hensperger< touts her friend’s recipe as the best ever.
Day 5: My son encouraged me to try his recipe from Maggie Glezer’s Chernowitzer Challah at Epicurious. Try with saffron soon.
Day 6: Marcy Goldman’s recipe in A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking uses a sponge starter.
Day 7: Deb Perelman modified Joan Nathan’s take on challah at Smitten Kitchen which calls for three rises.
I did make several mistakes– omitting sesame seeds from the glazing step, forgetting to turn the pans in the oven, not allowing enough time for refrigerated dough to reach room temp. I am still working on the timing of the stages, so I don’t repeat the night that the risings had me up until midnight. I also forgot to roll up my sleeves each time. Each baking broadened my nascent repertoire with new ingredients or suggestions. I began to notice similarities and differences in the recipes. I managed just fine without a dough hook. With my confidence growing a bit, I began to incorporate the tips I had gathered through the week, such as:
- Allow eggs and butter to reach room temperature.
- Plump raisins or other dried fruits in warm water or a liquor, drain well and pat with towels.
- Activate yeast at about 110º, if proofing.
- Nestle the dough into an oiled plastic bag tented over the rising dough.
- Warm the rising bowl with warm water (and dry it) before placing the dough in it.
- Add raisins or chocolate chips while kneading.
- Start braiding from the middle and double pinch the ends of the braids under the loaf.
- To glaze, use an egg plus a yolk with a bit of sugar and salt mixed in. Glaze once when braided and then again just before baking. Or, glaze once when braiding and then 20 minutes into the baking to cover the newly expanded dough. I learned not to saturate the dough with glaze or it seeps into the dough.
- Pre-heat the oven at 375º and lower it to 350º when you put the challah in.
My challah week evoked excitement in my grandsons. When my five-year-old grandson saw me braiding my first challah on a Monday, he asked “Is it Shabbat?” The four boys rushed in the door at the end of their school day asking for dough bits to create their baby breads. They tore into the Shabbat challah decorated with their chocolate chip initials etched onto the braids. One night, dinner and challah came out of the oven at the same time. I succumbed when they refused the proper dinner gobbling slice after slice of the fresh bread. (I did insist on some protein spread–cream cheese or humus or cream cheese spread.)
As each challah took shape during the week, my earlier intimidation melted. Each loaf brought me home to comfort with this ritual that I had avoided for so long. Each one fed my curiosity and amazement. Challah, as it has for generations of Jews, braids me even more tightly to my family and I continue to bake challah every week.
I just need to learn to roll up my sleeves.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on stories from her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (second edition, Jewish Lights) . She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, New York City, now available to travel to your community.