Jewish Hope persists in Challahdays and Challahyays
We look at bread. We see sugar, eggs, and flour. We see challah and transport back into our Bubby’s sweltering kitchen on Friday night; peeking into her stove, mesmerized with the infinitely rising bread. We see our ultimate comfort food. We see home.
The reason that challah is one of the main symbols of Jewish tradition is a mystery to some, yet Jewish tears dried from the comforts of our fluffy dough and salty crust have got us hooked. For some, it is a relic of life before the Holocaust, one that has been lost.
For lifelong challah enthusiast Bobbi Luxemberg, her grandmother’s challah is the only thing she had left from her home country Poland. After World War II her grandmother came to America with no money, no support, just a pillow and her challah recipe –memorized by heart.
Luxemberg said, “My grandmother would wake up at 4 a.m. every week to shlep to the grocery store, just to make her grandchildren challah.” The tradition allowed her grandma to connect with her faith, especially after enduring the Holocaust–a time when many Jews were impious and hopeless. For them and many other Jews, the fact that they were not saved from Nazis made them question God’s existence. However, the existence of challah has always been there to comfort Jews through hardship.
When the Jews were escaping slavery in Egypt they were deprived of food. God sent them manna(bread) with just enough for each family, but on Shabbat, families were given double the portion. This tradition has been maintained as Jews make two loaves of challah for each meal spanning Friday’s shabbat dinner to lunch the next day.
During the Temple Period, challah was offered as a gift to the Kohanim -Jewish Priests, along with other goods. Jews were meant to give the first of their crop, and goods to the Kohanim as a sign of respect. Due to the destruction of both the first (1200-586 B.C.E) and second temple (597 B.C.E– 70 AD), the Kohanim are no longer present in Jewish rabbinic practice. Still, they are remembered with challah.
According to religious law, modern orthodox Jew Mariam said, “We burn a piece of the challah that the Kohanim would have eaten, since they no longer exist we cannot give it to them so we honor them with it.”
Challah is a way of honoring our loved ones uniquely. Besides the gift of great food, if one bakes more than five pounds, one gets the opportunity to say a special prayer-lihafrish challah. This prayer is dedicated to the sick wishing good health to them.
Luxemberg was grateful for such an opportunity. She said, “When my sister was getting a C-section, baking challah allowed me to pray for her and her health. Baking is already comforting, but having the chance to pray for it in my unique way, elevates the challah’s meaning.”
Those who grow up in challah making homes appreciate the memories associated with it, not just the baking. Mariam said, “My father was not a cook but he was a feeder, he loved tearing up the challah and giving it to us every week and I loved it when he got involved.”
Some who didn’t grow up with such a tradition try to make up for it with their own children. Paulette Garbuz-Ettinger only started making challah after her trip to Israel, one that connected her spiritually to the tradition. “The trip connected me to my faith, and made me realize that my home was deprived of many– not only religious– but fun traditions.”
Although there may be a perfect looking challah, there is no such thing as the perfect recipe. For Luxembourg, it took a while to find a consistent recipe. She said, “It took a little trial and error to find a good recipe; my grandmother’s wasn’t written down so for me it took finding small tips like what temperature, mixer, and external conditions impact the outcome.”
For Mariam, the result is not in her hands. Challah is not easily manipulated and does not come with a “one size fits all” recipe. The best challah is one that is unique. Mariam said, “Even though I always try my best, the end result is always in God.”
- 510 g bread flour (mine has 12.7% protein content)
- 30 g sugar
- 7 g salt *
- 4 g active dry yeast
- 30 g olive oil
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 215 ml water **
- 2 egg whites
- Add the yeast to the water and mix well. I like to use a wire whisk to make sure there are no lumps. Let it sit 5 mins to activate.
- While the yeast is activating. Sift the flour into a bowl and add the salt and the sugar. Mix well with a wire whisk.
- Once the yeast is active (you should see some bubble on top) add it to the flour mixture
- Add the eggs and the yolks
- Mix everything very well until you don’t see dry flour particles. If the dough is not cohesive, you might need to add a little bit more water. Do it half tbsp at a time. You don’t want to add too much water.
- Let the dough rest for 20 minutes for a short autolysis. You can skip this step if you don’t have time, but I strongly recommend it since it’ll make your life easier when you have to knead the dough.
- Start kneading the dough until it gets some consistency and elasticity.
- Add the oil little by little until the dough absorbs it all.
- Keep kneading until the dough is no longer sticky and you see small blisters covering the surface. It should pass the windowpane test.
- Once the dough is ready, shape it into a ball. Lightly oil a bowl and place the dough inside. Cover the bowl and let the dough ferment for 1h approx. It doesn’t have to duplicate the size.
- After 1h, deflate the dough, shape it again into a ball and let it ferment again until it’s about 1.5 times in size or until it’s puffy but not over fermented.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, deflate it and let it rest 5 mins.
- Divide the dough into 6 equal parts (if you’re doing a 6-strand challah)
- Shape each part into a ball, cover them with plastic wrap and let them rest 5 mins.
- Roll each ball into a 50 cm (20 in) log. Start making short logs and let them rest before rolling them to the final length. It’ll give the gluten time to rest and it’ll be easier for you.
- Shape your Challah the way you’d like, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the Challah there.
- Brush the Challah with the egg whites wash, cover it with lightly oiled plastic wrap and let it rise until it’s puffy.
- Preheat your oven at 350 F (175 C).
- Once the Challah is ready, carefully remove the plastic wrap and brush again with the egg whites.
- Bake in the middle rack for about 20-25 minutes and turn the baking sheet 180 degrees. Bake for another 20 mins or until it’s golden brown (we turn the baking sheet halfway to ensure an even baking)
* You can omit the salt when you mix the dry ingredients and add it after the autolysis.
** You might need to adjust the water. The range should be anywhere between 200-250 ml.