Any idea how many times I've started writing this post? LOTS. I'd sit down with a couple of spare minutes available, then realize a couple of spare minutes weren't enough to do a challah post justice. Because challah? It's more than a bread to me. It's a recurring theme.
The first time I ever heard of challah was in a book I read in 5th grade. The book was about a Jewish family with lots of girls, and I was so enamored of it, I read it about a dozen times. Then I did an oral book report about it which was supposed to last 2 minutes. I spoke for almost 10. I loved the book so much, I wanted to become Jewish, to break a symbolic loaf of bread every Friday night. I wish I could remember the book's title, because I suspect I'd still love it, even now. It was around this time that I learned that I am approximately 1/32 Jewish, but you better believe I CLUNG to that 32nd like Israel was my homeland. I told my father that if I ever had a son, I'd name him Schloimon. I couldn't understand why he didn't love the name as much as I did.
Then, my senior year in college, a friend invited me to make challah with her. We were both English Education majors, but we loved baking that challah so much that we made hypothetical plans to open a bakery. We figured we'd combine our refined use of the English language with our love for baking, and hypothetically called our shop "We Be Bakin"." People will always need bread, we reasoned. There will never be a time when people don't need bread. That's called job security, my friends, and when you're a senior English major staring a potentially job-less future full in the face, even hypothetical jobs sound pretty good.
After I graduated, I moved to live with my aunt and uncle in Newton, Massachusetts. I heard somewhere that the population of Newton is so overwhelmingly Jewish that the town's nickname is actually "Jewton." I don't know if that's true, but most of the people I came to be friends with there were, in fact, Jewish. The day that my friend Wendy invited me to have Sabbath dinner with her family was the day I realized my fondest wish. I felt so honored to be present as they broke challah together, and was even more honored that summer when my friends called me an "honorary Jew."
So. Challah. Not only do I love it when I'm pretending to be Jewish, it also makes great rolls, BLTs, and french toast. For ages, I baked it solely in its traditional braided form, but recently, I started braiding it and baking in a loaf pan for great sandwich bread. Then, for Thanksgiving, I baked it into dinner rolls. Any way you slice it (literally!), challah is a rich, tender, flaky, delicious bread. It is perfect with hearty favorites like stew and pot pie, but it also makes the best sandwiches ever. Give it a whirl! And see if you don't feel a smidge like singing Hava Nagila.
We Be Bakin'!!
from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking
by Brother Rick Curry, S.J.
2 pkg. active dry yeast (about 4 1/2 tsp.)
1/2 c. warm water
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
Mix; set aside for 5 minutes to "proof."
In a large bowl, combine:
5 c. all-purpose flour
2 1/4 c. warm water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
Mix thoroughly, then add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture. Beat for 10 minutes (by hand, or with a stand mixer), gradually adding flour until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 8 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as necessary to prevent stickiness. Place bread in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat, and cover and let rise until doubled--45 minutes to an hour.
Punch down the dough. Work in more flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Divide into six pieces and shape pieces into 10-inch ropes. Braid into two loaves. You may bake this on a cornmeal-lined baking sheet or stone, or you may bake the braided loaves in greased loaf pans. Or, what the heck? Shape the dough into rolls. In any event, cover the dough with tea towels or plastic wrap, and let rise again until doubled.
Glaze with a mixture of:
1/2 c. water
And sprinkle with poppy seeds, if desired. Bake loaves in a preheated 350-degree oven. Loaves will take 35-45 minutes, rolls will take less. You'll love the beautifully dark, shiny crust on these beauties!