Friday, December 21, 2007



The breaking of bread marks the beginning of many traditional meals. Though one is oft laden with back-breaking stress at this time of year, we sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that traditional meals mark occasions. The one that we - as in, the human race - commonly share is that of the New Year (though it occurs at different times depending on the calendar one follows), but within cultural divisions, there are celebrations of puberty rites, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Eid, engagements...What about theses? Though I do not intend to make a tradition out of writing academic documents, I do intend to mark this singular occasion with the breaking of bread: challah (or challot in this case, for I made three loaves).

Challah is a bread that I truly love but have not had for a while as it does not seem to be sold in New Zealand bakeries, presumably on account of the small Jewish representation in the Kiwi population. Technically, challah refers to a "portion" of bread that is to be kept aside to represent the manna that aided the Israelites during 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. It is a payment of tithe (tax levy) to the kohen (Jewish priesthood). Actually, there are debates within Judaism about the contemporary legitimacy of tithe, so I am going to quit while I'm ahead, for the purpose of mentioning it in the first place was only to refer to the origins of naming the bread.

Challah is probably as recognisable as baguette, for its most common formation is in a three-strand braid. It looks lovely when it has been executed well. As you can see from my "effort," I need to make a few more loaves in order to perfect the technique of braiding. Let's blame it on post-thesis trauma that I could not remember how to braid. In case you have forgotten, line up your three strands and pinch them together at the top. Pull the left strand over the centre strand, then the right one over the centre strand (which is now the left strand that was pulled over) and repeat.

There seems to be a proliferation of food bloggers' attempts at recipes from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World. I also have this interesting book and have decided to take my first directions for making challah from it. The recipe yields three loaves. Do not be concerned if you do not use all of the flour, for you might not need all 2 1/2 cups suggested for the kneading process (a lot is called for as it is quite sticky), but absorption depends on the age of your flour and on the weather conditions prevailing on the day you make challah.

(from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World)

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
5 1/2 to 7 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 to 1/2 cup mild vegetable oil
egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water)

1) In a large bowl, stir yeast into the warm water until dissolved.
2) Stir in two cups of the flour until a smooth batter has been formed.
3) Cover with cling-film and let rest at room temperature for 2 hours, by which time the batter should be frothy.
4) Stir eggs, sugar, salt and oil into the batter.
5) Stir in 2 1/2 cups of flour in 1/2 cup increments. Ensure smoothness after each addition.
6) Add an additional 1/2 cup of flour, which is to be folded in. There is no explanation as to why it is folded instead of stirred in until smooth, but I suspect this is to aid in making it a little less sticky when it is first tumbled out for kneading.
7) Sprinkle flour on a cold surface and knead the bread, which is to say that you fold the dough over on itself, flatten it, then repeat. This creates a firm yet elastic texture that aids the dough in rising. You will need to add sprinklings of flour to your hands, the dough and the surface during this process, until you have a very smooth dough.
8) Place dough in a well-oiled bowl and cover with cling-film. Leave for 6 hours or overnight. The authors don't tell you what to expect when you come back after leaving the dough overnight. You can imagine my fright when I saw what is pictured on your left. I guess enough carbon dioxide was given off by the yeast over night. This was a very active dough indeed. I decided not to throw it out in despair and was surprised at how well the dough pulled together when I gathered it into a ball before putting it on a lightly floured surface.
9) Divide the ball into three equal portions.
10) Take one portion of dough and divide it into three parts. Roll each of these three parts out to form strands, approximately 46cm/20" long, tapering at both ends.
11) Pinch together at top end and braid per instructions above. Tuck ends underneath.
12) Place bread on a baking sheet and cover with cling-film.
13) Repeat with the other two portions of dough.
14) Let the loaves of bread rise for 45 minutes to one hour.
15) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
16) Just before baking, brush egg wash on the loaves.
17) Place bread on lower third rack in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
18) Brush egg wash on the loaves again, and turn oven down to 177 C/350 F.
19) Bake for a further 20-25 mintues. The loaves should sound hollow when rapped.
20) Place loaves on a rack and let cool for approximately 20 minutes before slicing.

This is a slightly sweet bread, especially the crust. I found that the inner layers still had a bit of a tang, but I suspect my yeast was overactive, which you can see in the little bumps that formed on the crust in the photo that introduces this post. I love seeing the tension in the crust; it makes the bread look like strands of rope. The texture of the interior is incredibly light and fluffy. It reminds me of French pastry in the way the layers separate like leaves of paper.

I enjoyed breaking from the thesis with challah. I froze two loaves once they had completely cooled...the other one was gone in no time.

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Well, the braiding might be just a little bit uneven, but your challah looks soft and tender. Mind you, I've never had challah before, so here's another recipe to try..
Thanks, Shaun!!
Wow Shaun, you sure did jump right back into the kitchen since your thesis is complete. Stunning looking bread! I am not a baker and I could just see me trying to attempt this one. I am posting before breakfast this morning so the photo with the bread and jam, well I could just reach in and eat it! What a great job you did on your challah and nice background info on it also. I enjoy the history of food just as much as the recipes. That is what I look for when I purchase a new cookbook. I think the authors of the newer books are doing this more than some of the older books. Thanks Shaun!
It's done? You turned in your diss? Congratulations!

So good to see you posting again.

I've never had challah but keep meaning to try it. Your post is perhaps the push I need and I love baking breads of any kind.

Happy Holidays!
Challah is among my most favored breads, the eggy richness and shine, the faint, pleasing sugar. Excellent French toast, bread pudding, breakfast strata...

Shaun, the "secret" to braiding is intuiting the trinity of ropes rather than thinking, like juggling. I'd be happy for a thick slice of this lacquered with jam. Bet it tastes divine.
Have a very "Merry Christmas" Shaun! Have fun and be safe.
My best,
Merry Christmas to you and your partner, Shaun - cheers!
Challah is lovely .. but so easy to buy here in London, atleast!

Warm wishes from a cold London :-)
Pille ~ "Uneven" is a rather kind understatement, but I'll take it. The interior texture is indeed soft and fluffy. There is a lilting sweetness in the challah, which offsets, I presume, the mild tang caused by the activity of the yeast. A great bread that freezes very well, and despite the stages, it is an uncomplicated bread to make.

Deb ~ I'm with you on what I value in cookery books - depth of information. I'm no baker either - far from it, in fact - but the Alford and Duguid recipe for this delicious and fluffy bread seemed easy enough for me to pass my hand at. I'll make it pretty regularly, assuming the appearance of the final product will improve. I also want to attempt Chez Panisse's rye bread from the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

I also hope you have a happy holiday season, Deb.

Cythnia - Yes, darling, it's all done. I won't have a final grade until February or March, but at least I have done all I can do. And the finished product looks nice and inoffensive on my shelf - though I'm sure it'll be a while before I can read my thesis objectively.

I, too, have needed a pretty big push to bake bread. I have commented on many bloggers' posts about how they have inspired me to make bread, but I always freak out and don't do it. It is an unfounded fear on my part, for I'm not a nightmare in the kitchen so should have more faith in myself.

Happy Holidays to you, too!

Susan, lovie ~ Yes, I, too, have thought about the possibilities for dishes that are built upon the fantastic base that is challah. Bread and butter pudding is an option, but brioche actually works better, for its gazillion eggs make for a very luxurious dessert. If it had more height, there'd be big enough slices for BLATs. Perhaps I pulled the braids too tight?

Enjoy the festivities.

Nigel ~ I raise one to you, too. Thank you for the kind wishes. May your holiday season be happy, safe, and glorious.

Anthony ~ Lucky you! Yes, it is easy to get hold of in the States, too, or at least in the large metropolitan centres. Not in NZ, though. But that's okay. Now that I've given it a go, I'll be back for more!

Have a lovely Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you! Hope you had a lovely time with your family even though you were sans Eric :-(
Hi Shaun,
What a fantastic way to mark the occasion. You are so right that breaking the bread is a cross-cultural experience. The history behind different breads is so interesting.

I envy your challot - their shiny exterior and fluffy texture. You will have plenty of time to perfect your braiding skills now ;-)

x Nora
Those challah look great :-)

This version from Mollie Katzen's website is also pretty good:

Family legend has it that my grandad (a Jewish baker) once made a challah loaf with 32 strands to it. I think I'll stick to three!
It looks beautiful, I'd love to try something like this. Congratulations on completing your thesis, hope you are having a wonderful holiday!
Anthony ~ Yes, Christmas was lovely with the family. I hope had a lovely one, too.

Nora B. ~ I have since read up on braiding techniques and have found that I can give more body to my challah with an outwards braid (instead of inwards). I'll give it a go and see how I do.

Jen ~ Thanks for stopping by!

How wonderful to know that there is a genetic gift for patience and artistry should you ever wish to exercise it. The thought of dealing with 32 strands already has me heading for the gin bottle to calm down my nerves.

Thank you for the Katzen link.

Sara ~ Long time, no see!! Thank you. I guess a feeling of elation won't come, but I'm still glad to be done with the thesis, though I already miss my advisor!! :-)

My holiday is thus far yours? Happy `08!
Shaun, this one looks delicious!!
-Laura :-)
Laura ~ I'm glad you could stop by! It is really delicious and freezes really well - the texture is retained once thawed.





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