Challah of Hymie Baker

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Challah of Hymie Baker

Is there any food that reflects the beauty of Judaism more than a freshly baked challah? Jews and non-Jews alike love the flavor and shape of this delicious eggy bread. But challah is so much more than just bread. The tradition of challah is a very spiritual one; for observant Jews, it is a way to directly connect with the spiritual energy of God. In fact, baking challah is considered an important blessing in the Jewish home.

Today, the word challah is used to describe the beautiful loaf of braided bread that appears on Shabbat tables all over the world. In ancient times, challah referred to a small bit of dough that was set aside for the Temple priests as an offering to God:

Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it.

Numbers 15:20

Burning a small portion of dough as an offering is part of the challah blessing.

Traditionally, challah is served on Shabbat and holidays. I like to think of challah as a “special occasion” bread because of the time and effort that goes into making it. You can certainly make challah any day of the year, but in my home the process is reserved for Shabbat and the major Jewish holidays (except for Passover, of course, when leavened bread is not allowed). The smell of freshly baked challah ushers in our weekly Shabbat celebration and puts everybody in a mood of gratitude. As blog reader Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill put it—“I love it when I finish making my Shabbat Challah. It smells like Shabbat!”

The ritual associated with separating and blessing the challah is somewhat complex process, dependent on the size of challah you are baking and your level of observance. Customs vary according to Halachic opinion; Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions approach the blessing differently. If you are interested in learning more about the process of separating challah, there are many guides available online… or ask a trusted rabbi!

For me, baking challah is like a meditation. Kneading and rising, kneading again, shaping, braiding and baking—it all takes a lot more time than, say, baking brownies from an instant mix. But smelling the bread baking, then seeing your gloriously braided challah on the dinner table, really makes it all worthwhile. I hope this blog inspires you to try it yourself!

The following recipe is my favorite way to make challah, developed after many attempts to create a “foolproof” challah recipe. It’s a rich, moist, eggy challah sweetened with honey. The multiple risings create a beautiful texture, and the egg wash results in a gorgeous golden crust. Feel free to sprinkle your challah with any of the toppings suggested in the recipe. You also can add raisins or chocolate chips to the dough (adding real chocolate will make it a dairy dish). No matter which way you choose to make it, challah is a delicious way to celebrate Shabbat, or any other holiday.

If you’ve never made challah before, remember to be patient. Baking challah is a simple process, but it does take time and effort. You may need to try it a few times to get a “feel” for the dough. If you follow my instructions exactly, you should be fine—I’ve tried to describe each step specifically. Comment me if you have any questions. For instructions on how to braid your challah.

And now for my favorite part of baking challah– braiding!! Braiding challah is super fun. I know some of you are probably thinking “this is way too complicated for me.” But trust me, once you get a feel for the dough you’ll fall in love with the braiding process. I’ve listed every potential mistake I can think of in this blog to help you stay on track. So why not jump in and give it a try? All that work will result in a gorgeous challah that you can proudly display as the centerpiece for your dinner table. I feel such a sense of accomplishment when I create a beautifully braided challah– it makes my inner artist happy!

If you need a challah recipe, or want to learn more about the blessing of challah, click on the following link:

Challah Part 1: The Blessing and the Dough

There are many different ways to braid a challah. I’m going to share my favorite ways with you here, including two ways to make a round loaf for Rosh Hashanah.

First, you need to learn how to make a nice even strand from the dough. All the braids are made from strands, so it’s important to know how to make a fundamental strand shape.

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HOW TO MAKE STRANDS

Divide your dough into the number of strands you’ll need, making sure each portion is equal in volume. For example, if you’re making a three strand challah, divide your dough into three equal portions

Take one of the portions and roll it out with a rolling pin until it is flat and about 1/4 inch thick. Don’t worry about the shape of the dough, it doesn’t matter. Put the smaller part of the dough towards the top of your rolling surface, with the widest part towards the bottom.

Using both hands, put pressure on the rolling surface and pull the dough back towards you, rolling it back into a strand shape. Keep even pressure on the dough as you roll so that no air pockets collect in the strand.

Once your strand shape is created, roll it back and forth with both hands to erase the seams and smooth out the strand. As you roll, angle your hands outward and apply gentle pressure to taper the dough on the outer edges. By doing this, your strand should end up slightly thicker in the middle and thinner on the ends. This will help make your braided challah tapered at the ends, which creates a beautiful shape.

Further taper the strand by grasping one end between your two palms and gently rolling the dough back and forth. Repeat for the other end of the strand.

And that’s how you make a strand! Simple, right? Now, before we start braiding, I want to share a few tips with you that I’ve learned from trial and error over the years.

CHALLAH BRAIDING TIPS

1. Make sure your dough has completely risen using a two-rise process before you start to braid. If you don’t, your strands may rise and expand while you are braiding, leading to a misshapen and sloppy-looking braid. The challah will still taste good, but it won’t look as pretty.  :)

2. Once you start braiding, continue until you are finished. If you walk away from a half-braided challah, you might lose your place in the braid, which can make things a lot more complicated.

3. For braids that start with the strands being pinched together at the top (Four- and Six-Strand braids), pinch them somewhat loosely at the beginning of the braiding process. I’ve found that often I like to “unpinch” this top section when I’m finished braiding so I can re-braid the top of the challah into a tighter, neater braid. This gives a cleaner look to the challah overall.

4. If your dough is sticking to the board, keep your surface lightly floured as you braid.

5. Don’t get discouraged! Making even strands and pretty braids takes some practice. Follow the steps here carefully, be patient with yourself, and most importantly HAVE FUN!

Now, let’s start with the braiding! Here is the simplest way to braid a challah…

Three-Strand Challah

THREE-STRAND BRAID

This is the easiest way to braid a challah. For those of you who know how to braid hair, this should come naturally to you. I like to start the braid in the middle of the strands instead of the top because it gives the challah a more even, balanced shape.

The important thing to remember when braiding a Three-Strand Challah is to be aware of your middle strand. Each strand of dough will take a turn being the middle strand; keeping your eye on the middle strand will help you stay on track as you braid.

1. Create three equal-size strands. Lay the three strands side-by-side.

2. Grab the center of the right strand and cross it over the middle strand, drop it in the center. The right strand is now your middle strand.

3. Grab your left strand and cross it over the middle strand. The left strand becomes your middle strand.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 (right strand to middle, left strand to middle) until you have braided your challah to the very end. Pinch the three strands together at the end.

5. Grab the challah in the center…

and flip it towards you so the challah is now upside down and the unbraided strands are facing downward.

6. Continue braiding by grabbing the left strand and crossing it over the middle strand. The left strand becomes your middle strand.

7. Grab the right strand and cross it over the middle strand, drop it in the center. The right strand is now your middle strand.

8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 (left strand to middle, right strand to middle) until your challah is fully braided. Pinch the ends of the loose strands together and tuck both the top and bottom tips of the challah under to create a nice rounded shape.

Three-Strand Challah Braid

9. Brush with egg wash, top if desired, then allow challah to rise. Bake according to your challah recipe’s instructions.

Four-Strand Challah

FOUR-STRAND CHALLAH

The Four-Strand Challah is my favorite braid. I love the design it creates. When braiding a Four-Strand Challah it’s important to remember that you always start with the strand that is furthest to the right. Memorize the “over, under, over” pattern and say it out loud as you braid to keep you on track.

1. Create four equal-size strands. Lay the four strands side-by-side, then pinch them together so they are connected at the top.

2. Take the strand furthest to the right and weave it towards the left through the other strands using this pattern: over, under, over.

3. Take the strand furthest to the right and repeat the weaving pattern again: over, under, over. Repeat this pattern, always starting with the strand furthest to the right, until the whole loaf is braided.

4. Pinch the ends of the loose strands together and tuck them under on both ends of the challah loaf to create a nice shape.

Four-Strand Challah Braid

5. Brush with egg wash, top if desired, then allow challah to rise. Bake according to your challah recipe’s instructions.

Six-Strand Challah

SIX-STRAND CHALLAH

A Six-Strand Challah is somewhat more complex than the Three- and Four-Strand braids, but once you get the hang of it it’s actually pretty simple. This braid creates a thick, wide challah with a pretty design.

When braiding a Six-Strand Challah, like with the Four-Strand, it’s important to remember that you always start with the strand that is furthest to the rightMemorize the “over 2, under 1, over 2” pattern and say it out loud as you braid to keep you on track.

1. Create six equal-size strands. Lay the six strands side-by-side, then pinch them together so they are connected at the top.

2. Take the strand furthest to the right and weave it towards the left through the other strands using this pattern: over 2 strands, under 1 strand, over 2 strands.

3. Take the strand furthest to the right and repeat the weaving pattern again: over 2 strands, under 1 strand, over 2 strands. Repeat this pattern, always starting with the strand furthest to the right, until the whole loaf is braided.

4. Pinch the ends of the loose strands together and tuck them under on both ends of the challah loaf to create a nice shape.

Six-Strand Challah Braid

5. Brush with egg wash, top if desired, then allow challah to rise. Bake according to your challah recipe’s instructions.

Turban Challah

TURBAN CHALLAH

For the Rosh Hashanah holiday, challah is baked into a spiral shape– sometimes called a “Turban Challah.” The shape symbolizes the cycle of a year coming to a close, and a new cycle beginning. This type of challah is usually baked with raisins in the dough to signify a “sweet” new year. Concealing the raisins inside the dough creates a prettier, more uniform challah.

1. Knead and roll to flatten the dough into a rough rectangular shape, about a 1/2 inch thick.

2. If adding raisins, sprinkle them evenly across the center of the rectangle. Use either black or golden raisins, whichever you prefer.

3. Use your hands to rolls the dough from the bottom upward into one large, even strand, making sure to roll tightly to avoid air pockets. The raisins will be concealed inside the dough.

4. Roll the dough using both hands to smooth seams and create one large strand.

5. Taper the strand at the ends by rolling the dough between your palms.

6. Roll one end of the strand inward to create a spiral snail-shell shape.

7. Continue rolling the strand in the same direction until the spiral is complete. Tuck the loose end of the spiral underneath the challah and pinch it tightly into the bottom, securing it.

Turban Challah

8. Brush with egg wash and top, if desired. Allow challah to rise for at least 45 minutes until you can press your finger into the dough and it doesn’t bounce back. The last rise is very important with this challah shape, since it is prone to splitting. Bake according to your challah recipe’s instructions. Note that this shape may require more baking time than a normal challah due to its bulk.

Linked Loops Challah

LINKED LOOPS CHALLAH

This is my favorite way to make a round challah loaf, and will give you another option for your round Rosh Hashanah challah. The chain shape represents unity, strength, and togetherness. While the pattern looks intricate, it’s actually quite simple to make.

1.  Divide the dough into five thick equal-size strands. Don’t taper the strands as you would for a normal challah braid. Form one strand into a circle, pinching the ends together to create a ring of dough.

2.  Take another strand and connect it to the first circle as in a chain. Pinch the ends together to form a second circle.

3. Repeat the process until all the strands form a complete chain. The final circle links to the first one to create a round challah shape.

Linked Loops Challah

4. Brush with egg wash, top if desired, and allow challah to rise. Bake according to your challah recipe’s instructions. Note that this shape may require more baking time than a normal challah due to its bulk.

MINI CHALLAH ROLLS

Use your challah dough to make some pretty and delicious challah dinner rolls! They are so simple to make, and they’re sure to impress your dinner guests.

To save time, I often make these early in the morning and shape them into rolls, then cover the cookie sheet with plastic and place it in the refrigerator. I take it out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before baking so the dough can return to room temperature.

1. Roll your dough into equal-sized strands that are about 9 inches long.

2. For each strand, start by tying a knot in the dough.

3. Pinch the two loose ends together to create a roll shape.

4. Place the seam side down on a greased cookie sheet. Brush with egg wash, top if desired, and allow to rise. Bake as you would a traditional challah braid. They may cook slightly faster than a braid, so keep an eye on them towards the end of the baking process.

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