I started making challah when my daughter was 2. I hadn’t baked much since I was a teenager, but she and I had a long winter, mostly inside, together. Her afternoon nap was going the way of the dodo, and the two of us needed some activities. So–challah it was!
At four, my daughter is a bit young for the history-of-challah lesson, but I have a few years on her, and was interested. Why a sweet bread? Why braided? Do Jews everywhere make challah? I could totally see it on a dinner table in Poland, but in Yemen? Iraq? Nah, didn’t seem likely. So I looked it up. We do that, a lot, in this family.
I began with that handy reference, The Jewish Book of Why. The word challah is first used in Leviticus to describe the twelve showbreads that were laid on the altar of the Tabernacle.
There was an obligation in the Temple period to set aside a portion of all baked bread for the priestly class–and so when you baked bread, you would “take challah” to sustain the priests at the Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, that obligation was translated into “taking challah” and burning up the piece taken. Because the family table is now the “altar,” salt is sprinkled on the challah, as it would have been on sacrifices during the Temple period.
So that’s the deep history. But the braid? Now I turn to Cecil Adams (or rather his science advisory board, in this case), long time author of the column “The Straight Dope” in the Chicago Reader. (I miss my days in Chicago a bit and I’m glad Cecil is online now.) Dex, of the science advisory board, obligingly tells me that Sephardic tradition uses more pita-like loaves rather than the braided ones.
The braided loaves, not surprisingly, originated in Eastern Europe, where they have plenty of local counterparts: “Around the 15th Century, Ashkenazic Jews (in eastern Europe) developed the challah that we have today. It is thought that the braiding or twisting was a pun on twisting off the little piece of first dough as a reminder of the Temple sacrifices. The braided shape is believed not to be of purely Jewish origin, but modelled after twisted white breads that were found through central Europe and the Slavic countries.”
I’m sure there are more scholarly accounts out there, but The Straight Dope satisfied my curiosity for the time being. If anyone reading this has interesting family traditions around challah, I’d love to hear it.
Back to baking:
I tried a number of recipes: some were too heavy and dense, others required a frightening 10 or 12 cups of flour (I was sure I would mess that one up and waste it!). I knew that I wanted to use honey in the recipe: I keep bees, and always have plenty on hand. Besides that, though, honey keeps baked goods moist, and I wanted a moist, sweet challah.
And while using whole grains might be really good for you (and it’s how we roll most of the time), I wanted this to be traditional, light, moist, and sweet, not an exercise in health-conscious eating.
It took some experimenting, but this is what I came up with. My daughter is now 4 and a half, and we bake and cook together a lot: challah, carrot bread, waffles, lasagne, even vegetables. Yes, green ones. She’s much more likely to eat what she helps to make.
For two loaves (or two loaves plus a 4-year-old’s “baby loaf”)
1/2 C warm water
1 T yeast
pinch of sugar or a teaspoon of honey
Stir the yeast and sugar or honey into warm water. Wait for the yeast to bubble, about 5 minutes.
1/2 C bread flour
1/3 C honey (local honey, the good stuff, from a beekeeper you know!)
3 T canola oil
1 t salt
Mix until thoroughly combined.
Slowly add flour, half a cup at a time, up to about 3 cups. The dough should be firm. Knead the dough on a floured board, using more flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and not sticky.
Place in a greased bowl, and either put in a warm place to double, or refrigerate overnight.
After the dough has risen, punch it down, knead it for a few minutes, and divide it into six pieces. Braid into two loaves. Place on a silicone baking mat, or a greased sheet. Cover and let rise for about an hour. Brush with beaten egg, and bake in a preheated over at 350 for about 20 minutes.
You can also incorporate raisins while kneading it, or sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds.