My wife and sons are Jewish and so our family celebrates the major Jewish holidays, takes part in Temple activities, and so on (family trivia… I’m actually a mythologist). Two years ago, my eldest son, Tynan, spent several months in rigorous study and preparation for his bar mitzvah. As part of that celebration, Rabbi Jonathan of Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs invited us into the kitchen of the Temple to bake challah for the occasion.
“Us” included my me, my wife Becca, youngest son Sawyer, my dad, Becca’s parents Larry and JoAnn, her brother Josh, his wife Colleen, and their baby son Eli. Notably absent was my Mom who had died two years earlier. Before the bar mitzvah, I reached out to Rabbi Jonathan and asked if the challah recipe itself was somehow sacred… and whether he’d be willing to use my Mom’s challah recipe instead. I thought it would be a nice way of honoring her memory and have her attend the celebration in spirit. Rabbi Jonathan jubilantly replied that he thought it was a great idea and chose the recipe for Challah from her Celebration Breads cookbook.
Later, the challah played a part in the ceremony…
I found this explanatory note atop the Challah recipe on my Mom’s old website… “Challah, sometimes spelled Halla or Hallah, is pronounced HA LA. This Jewish bread is served on Friday night for the Sabbath dinner and for holidays. Challah is usually made with unbleached flour however, whole wheat or a combination of whole wheat and unbleached flour might be used. The dough is very rich due to the amount of eggs. Because of the eggs, the dough almost doubles in size before it goes into the oven, then doubles again during baking so plan accordingly.
Jewish dietary laws state that meat and dairy should not be served together. Therefore, the bread is traditionally made with water rather than milk since eggs, which are considered meat, are a main ingredient. The Friday night Challah is more than likely braided. It can be braided as fancy as its creator wants. The New Year’s Challah is always round but for other holidays it can be round or braided.”
*NOTE: This is an extremely large, showy braid. It’s perfect for a large party as a single braid; however, you may wish to make two smaller braids. If so, divide the dough in half and proceed with the directions in step 6. Challah dough is also attractive shaped into regular loaves or into dinner rolls.
- 2 scant tablespoons (or 2 ¼-ounce packages) active dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water about 110 degrees
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup vegetable shortening
- 3 large eggs room temperature
- 6½-7½ cups unbleached flour approximately
- 2 teaspoons salt
- EGG WASH - one large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water
- Poppy seed or sesame seed optional
In a large bowl, stir the yeast into water to soften.
Cream sugar and shortening. Add eggs and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add softened yeast, and 3 cups flour. Beat vigorously for 2 minutes. This is a sponge which has the consistency of a pancake batter rather than a bread dough. Cover the sponge with plastic wrap and a tightly woven towel. Let rise for 30 minutes. It should be light and full of tiny bubbles.
Stir the sponge to deflate it, add salt and flour, ¼ cup at a time, until the dough begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface.
Knead, adding flour a little at a time, until you have a smooth, elastic dough.
Put the dough into an oiled bowl. Turn to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 40 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface. Divide into thirds. Shape each third into a rope 20 inches long. Lay the ropes side-by-side on a well-seasoned baking sheet. Begin braiding in the center of the loaf for a more balanced braid.
Place the right rope over the center rope, then the left rope over the center, the right over the center, left over the center, etc., continuing until the ropes are too short to braid. Pinch all three ends together and tuck them under.
To braid the other end of the loaf, turn it so the braided portion is at the top and the ropes are at the bottom. Place the center rope over the right rope, then center rope over the left, center over the right, center over the left, etc., until the ends are too short to braid. Pinch all three ends together and tuck them under.
Cover with a towel and let rise 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Just before baking, brush the egg wash lightly over the braid. Always start at the top then brush the sides of the loaf. If you start on the sides, the glaze runs towards the pan and leaves an unsightly ring around the edge of your loaf. Sprinkle the top of the braid with poppy or sesame seeds, if desired.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the internal temperature of the braid reaches 190 degrees.
Immediately remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack to prevent the crust from becoming soggy.