The bread of affection
Two new books on art and tradition of challah baking
With the High Holy Days drawing near, I have been eager to broaden my challah-baking repertoire. As a former professional baker, I regularly make whole wheat, pumpkin, and even olive-za’atar challah at home, and seek out game changers to impress my family. Fortunately, two new books have expanded my perspective on challah’s potential.
The first, “Rising: The Book of Challah” (Feldheim Publishers), by Rebbetzin Rochie Pinson of the Lubavitch chasidic movement, is a tome devoted as much to the mystique of challah as to the making of it, with sections titled “Challah as a Recipe for Life,” “Living in the Process & Loving Every Moment,” and “Challah Meditations.” In her introduction, she writes, “This is a book for those of us who find ourselves wishing for a return to a simpler time, a slower pace, a scent of bread baking in the home, and a sense of peace in the moment.”
“Rising” features 31 challah recipes, including one vegan, one gluten-free, and six from the Middle East and Bukhara. Pinson also includes recipes for challah toppings and accompaniments, as well as tips on what to do with leftover challah. As much as I wanted to start with “Fishy Challah” (stuffed with tuna or salmon) or “Bridal Henna Challah” (painted with a paste of caramel powder and water), this being Rosh HaShanah, I turned to the Apple Honey Challah. This recipe, like most in the book, calls for 13 to 15 cups of flour, too much to fit in a standard KitchenAid mixer. So I halved it.
Then came my next challenge: The recipe initially calls for the honey to be added at the start with the yeast and water, but step three states to add the honey with the oil and egg. I compromised and put a tablespoon of honey in with the yeast to “feed” it, then added the remainder of the honey later on.
The recipe involves stuffing apple filling into the dough, but surprisingly, Pinson directs the reader to create a braided shape rather than the round form standard for the High Holy Days. (She does show elsewhere how to make a “classic turban roll” for Rosh HaShanah.) I made two challahs: one round, the other a four-stranded braid. The book stated medium-sized challahs would need 30 minutes in the oven. Mine, quite large, were done in 28. (You can check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the challah and listening for a hollow sound.)
The challahs emerged from my oven golden and fragrant, and I could not wait for them to cool before helping myself to a slice (or four). What my turban shape lacked in heft it made up for in flavor. The challah was moist and not too sweet despite the honey in the dough. My only regret was that I hadn’t doubled the filling. (I had made enough for one challah and divided it between the two.) I imagine a generous spread of apple butter would achieve perfection. The amount of filling in my braided challah, though, was just right, and more evenly spread due to the nature of the shape.
The second book, “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs” (She Writes Press), by Beth Ricanati, a physican and women’s health consultant, also promotes mindfulness though challah. She describes how, as a clinician raising three kids, she felt overextended and drained until one day 10 years ago a friend challenged her to bake challah. As a non-baker and non-religious Jew — growing up, Ricanati felt more comfortable in church with friends than in Hebrew school — the task seemed daunting. But Ricanati stuck with it and the weekly habit recalibrated her life.
This is not your regular cookbook; it contains just one recipe, two if you count the one for leftover challah French toast. Rather, it is a testament to the power of “taking even a few minutes to stop and smell the rising yeast.” Interspersed with anecdotes about her patients, accounts of her upbringing and schooling, and sidebars on nutrition, cooking tools, and ingredients, the book explains how the slow-paced, wondrous process of baking bread has enabled Ricanati to feel “present” in a fast-paced world, while also fostering a connection to her roots, other women, and her community.
Ricanati “insisted” on learning Braille at age 8, following a lesson on Helen Keller; at 10 she subscribed to Architectural Digest, and in college turned pre-med after majoring in art history, “all with no AP science in high school, and not a single science class until the tail end of my college life.” But after upping my game with increasingly complex recipes, perhaps a six-ingredient, one-rise formula for “pure, unadulterated, plain challah” was just what I needed.
I was particularly curious to see how the bread would turn out after rising a mere 90 minutes instead of the three and a half hours typical of many recipes, including Pinson’s. It is not hyperbole to say the outcome changed my life. I used to plan my day around making challah because of the time involved; this one required so little of me — and nothing of my KitchenAid — that it no longer felt like a chore. I had mistrusted Ricanati’s claim that I needn’t tap the bottom for doneness, and that “when it looks golden brown and smells wonderful, it’s done.” But I followed her advice and after a mere 23 minutes in the oven, two golden, pillowy loaves emerged. My French husband, the toughest of critics, took a bite and proclaimed, “Best challah ever. On dirait un croissant! (One would say it’s a croissant!)”
“Braided” comes out Sept. 18, Yom Kippur eve, so enthusiasts can snatch it up in time for Sukkot. For those who can’t wait, below is the condensed recipe, adapted from the tot Shabbat class at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.
2.25 tsp. yeast + 1 tsp. sugar + 1 cup very warm water
2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
four-ish cups flour
- Mix yeast, sugar, and water in small bowl; let stand about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix eggs, salt, sugar, oil, and two cups flour.
- Add yeast mixture to flour mixture.
- Add about 1.5 cups flour to the mixture. Dough should start to form a ball.
- Place dough on floured surface and knead into a ball, about five minutes.
- Place dough into oiled bowl, cover with towel or plastic wrap, and place somewhere warm 60-90 min.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place dough on floured surface, punch it out, and cut in half. Divide each half into three equal pieces and braid (making two challahs). Place on greased cookie sheet (or on parchment paper).
- Paint each challah with a mixture of egg yolk plus a little water.
- Bake 23-30 mins., until bread has risen and is golden brown. Let cool.