One of the strategies I use to make it through the eight long, flat, matzah-days of Passover is to fantasize about the challah I’m going to start baking as soon as the holiday is over.
I’ve made challah often enough in the past that even when I don’t bake for a while, I still have a strong sense-memory of what to do. But the week after Pesach—my first time back to baking challah in six months!—there was definitely an extra tingle in my fingertips when I plunged my hands into the warm, thick dough. I had to take a few extra breaths of the nutty-malty smell right at that moment when I add the sponge to the rest of the ingredients…It’s the smell of the anti-Pesach, the aroma of pure chametz, the yeast busy doing its magic, raising the roofs of a hundred (a thousand?) tiny bubbles in a bit of flour and water, sitting under the hot lights on my kitchen counter.
The recipe I use, from Nick Malgieri’s wonderful cookbook, How to Bake, is Yocheved Hirsch’s Round Challah recipe. I turn to it year-round even though it’s supposed to be for Rosh Hashanah; I just skip the raisins and make braids rather than round loaves.
This recipe calls for 5 cups of flour, and I’ve tried a lot of combinations before arriving at a blend of three cups wheat flour and two cups of spelt. I’m still on the lookout for the absolutely perfect flour—any suggestions?—but my wheat/spelt blend seems better than the alternatives. Regular wheat is too refined and makes what I call Wonder-challah. Whole wheat flour is too heavy (and no one in my family will eat it). I’ve also experimented with various proportions of spelt flour and found that all-spelt and mostly-spelt challah is too crumbly and doesn’t taste quite right, but 3/5 wheat and 2/5 spelt seems to give the challah a bit of extra body and flavor (and maybe slightly more nutritional value, depending on what nutrients you’re looking for).
I made the dough with my two-year-old: Pure joy! Pure mess! He has a pretty impressive egg-cracking technique, but the dry ingredients don’t all make it into the bowl. He also does an extensive taste-test on the sucanat (a non-refined cane sugar) before pouring that in. Later, in the afternoon, we had six-handed kneading when my older son got home from school. I don’t know if the networks will ever televise it, but there’s a new sport in my house: x-treme kneading. I usually like to let the challah rise again between the kneading and the braiding—and after that punching, I probably should have—but I was running late and the grandparents were coming to dinner, so we went right to the next step. I split the dough into two balls. My little one was content to sprinkle flour on the table as I braided our portion. My older son took one look at my traditional loaf and decided to turn his portion into a “monster” challah.
After the second rise—about an hour—it was time to paint. I’d learned from Challah for Hunger founder Eli Winkelman that she paints her challah with honey instead of egg. So we embarked on an experiment: my traditional braided challah got painted with egg, and the monster challah got honey. My older son also emptied about half a bag of sesame seeds on his loaf.
The recipe calls for 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees, but when I looked into the oven after fifteen minutes, the challot were totally done and totally flat. Not matzah-flat, but close. As we prepared to light Shabbat candles, we traded theories about why the loaves were so flat: Was it because they rose just twice, instead of the ideal three times? Or maybe the ingredient proportions were slightly off, thanks to my little co-baker? Was it the workout my older son gave the dough?
But looks aren’t everything. Half-delirious from the incredible smell of freshly baked challah by the time we sat down to our Shabbat dinner, everyone clamored for a piece of both loaves, the egg-painted and the honey-painted. The vote was unanimous: we love honey. My mom said she’d like more honey, please, next time. (Thank you, Eli!) And count on young bakers to arrive at the best innovations. The extra-thick layer of seeds formed a sesame crust on my son’s bread that was just delicious. Monster challah rules!
I’d say the most important ingredient in the first time back to challah baking is a philosophical perspective. I don’t get too attached to the way the challah comes out; I’m more invested in the process, the fact that I’m doing it again. The word challah comes from the offering, the bit of dough that is traditionally taken from the batch of bread and burned in memory of the bread offering at the Temple. The first time back, I view the entire bread as “taken” challah, an offering of thanks to the Divine Creator who has ushered me once again into the kitchen of the universe.
Vegan Challah – click here
Sourdough Foccacia – click here
What’s so Jewish about bagels? – click here