"Challah is my favorite Friday bread. Well, it is my favorite any time bread. Filled with sweetness, it is perfect for toasting or just sliced and buttered. Not hard to make, it could even be made in a loaf pan."
My Grandma Fanny used to say, "Let everyone else eat cake. I'll take the bread." Personally I think she was on to something. Growing up our bread consisted of bread from Pepperidge Farm, which was pretty good, and maybe a French baguette when Jewel moved to town. I remember once we wanted to eat what all the other kids were eating so mom came home with a loaf of either Wonder bread or Rainbo. We immediately noticed how it stuck to the roof of our mouth and when we toasted it, the aroma of lard spread through out the kitchen. Now we never kept kosher, but that was one smell my father decided we could do without.
Our family never had a challah on the table, as there was nowhere to get a challah in Kankakee. I think for special events at the temple, someone would drive up north to procure a challah. You can rest assured my mother never tried to bake one. As a child my mother lit the candles and my dad said the kiddish blessing over wine, and we probably had a roast and a dairy noodle kugel-oy vey-but that was the extent of our Shabbat dinner, which usually meant running off to temple so us kids could sing in the junior choir.
When I found myself at Colorado State, a long way from Illinois, my parents actually visited for parent's weekend. Being a good child I let them take me to a Hillel meeting, and it was there I met what was to become my second family. I am forever grateful for that meeting. It was there I met the warmest family of seven, who have stuck with me for better or worse. (And as a side note to Zoe, who thinks I have no friends that I have kept in touch with from college-well here ya go! I must say though that it was more thanks to them than me, that we stayed in touch over all these years.) This family who had recently arrived from Israel, made my parents very happy when they promised to watch over me and that very same evening they invited me to a Shabbat dinner.
I, of course, asked what I could bring, and the person who was to become my dearest friend I'm sure said, "No need", and then for some reason I found myself saying with great confidence, "I'll bring the challah". I had recently brought a bread book and must have been enticed by the challah recipe in it. That's the only reason I can think of that I offered two loaves of challah, something that I had never baked in my life! Well, I relied on that recipe for many years. It produced two lovely loaves of challah that were devoured each Friday night by 5 kids and guests and I found myself quickly known as the challah baker. And so it was that each Friday I found myself baking challah, attending a Shabbat dinner, and then leaving at a reasonable time to go drink a vast quantity of beer. After all I was in college. This continued for I think three years, before they left to go home and suddenly my challah baking days were over... until I myself had kids.
Through these years I've found myself experimenting with many recipes and varieties of challah. To tell you the truth there is not a bad challah in the lot. Schmeared with butter, toasted, made into French toast, used as sandwich bread or in bread pudding, challah is the work horse bread in my kitchen. There is nothing that makes my house smell better than a fresh floor cleaned with Murphy's soap or a loaf of challah baking.
Challah has many traditions that surround it. In my mind it isn't JUST bread. It is special bread. There are rituals associated with it. During the Israelites forty years of wandering the Sinai, manna fell from heaven 6 days a week, but on Fridays two portions fell. The manna was kept fresh by the dew that surrounded it. It is that reason that two loaves of challah are served on Friday night, usually covered with seeds such as sesame or poppy, to remind us of the dew that kept the manna fresh. The challah is covered in a special cloth as the blessing over wine is said first. We cover the challahs so they won't be "shamed" because any other night the challah is blessed first. By first blessing the wine and sanctifying the Sabbath, we are indicating that the meal is an extension of the kiddish and the breaking of bread is the beginning of that meal to honor the Sabbath.
Though many breads can be used for Shabbat, a three or six braided challah is the most traditional. If one places two 6 braided challahs on the table they are said to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Challah braids can have many meanings but one often mentioned is that a three braided challah reminds us to honor the Sabbath and observe it and the third strand represents unification. During the week when all can be a bit helter skelter as we look out toward the world; the end of the week we come together and look inward and reflect in peaceful harmony as everything comes together on Shabbat. Most challah covers are embroidered with "in honor of Shabbat or holiday" but I am still trying to figure out what mine says! In our home after the blessing is said, we tear the challah rather than slice it. Not everyone does, but we believe that a knife signifies violence and the Sabbath is about peace.
Challah contains eggs which makes it a richer bread, more deserving of a special occasion. It is also sweeter, unlike daily bread which often doesn't contain sugar. Challah can be made from wheat, oats, rye, spelt or barley. Generally a challah used in a Shabbat meal is made without dairy-so no butter or milk allowed. Not keeping kosher, I often sub in both. I do admit to only serving one challah and freezing the other for future use! Challah recipes are varied, but most contain the same ingredients-it is the proportions that are different. Some may contain more eggs, others less. Some contain honey. Others contain sugar or even sugar and honey. I prefer a lighter, sweeter, moist challah and others want a more dense, not too sweet challah.
There are more rituals associated with challah, but I think it's time we get down to the nitty gritty. I'm giving you a great recipe from Bon Appetit. Like I said I've tried many and all are similar, but this one makes two huge challahs or 3 small ones and I think more is better. I use my Kitchen-Aid to knead the dough. Often I've kept the dough over night in the fridge and let it rise again the next morning. Depending on the heat of your home, this may take awhile. My other method involves preheating my oven to the lowest setting, turning it off after it is preheated, and then placing the bowl of dough in the oven to rise. Make sure to leave the oven door open if you try this.
Time to get baking!
More to try:
Onion Lover's Twist Maple Glazed Challah Rolls Chocolate Babka
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