Learning to make challah

challah #1

challah #1

It's been four weeks now since I started making my own challah every Friday. I used to pick up a freshly baked challah from the kosher baker on the way home after dropping off the girl at school. I'd line up with the other customers waiting to place my order.

The challah was straight out of the oven. It was so warm that I had to take it in a paper bag and hold it level so it didn't compress. Sometimes it was so warm that I balanced it on my fingertips. I was the pied piper of the neighborhood with the scent of fresh baked challah trailing behind me as I walked home.

Challah is part of our Friday night dinner every week. It's a part of Friday night dinner for Jews of European descent all around the world. It's part of the tradition of celebrating the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

We light and bless the candles, we bless and drink the wine, and we bless and eat the challah. Every week. Every Friday night.

challah #2

challah #2

But I wanted to make my own. I wanted that physical connection with not only the past (about 700 years of challah making in this form and thousands of years of bread making before that), but with millions of others celebrating Shabbat every Friday night around the world. A link to the past and a link within the present.

Tradition. Ritual. Love. The magic of making something with my hands that is both ritual and sustenance for family and friends.

One of the ways that I show my family love is to cook for them. I wanted to learn to make challah.

challah #3

challah #3

And on the creative side, the power of repetition. Again. And again. Iterations. Improvements. Mistakes. Corrections. Making notes about what works and what doesn't. Figuring out how to solve what doesn't work. Throwing out ruined batches. Starting over. Trying again. 


Developing skills. Developing a sixth sense, a feel that goes beyond these steps and those amounts. Developing my own taste. What do I like? What don't I like? How can I create it? Why did it work this time and not that time?

There's no shortcut. Mastery comes from repetition and practice. I'm not there yet. I'm closer, but I'm not there yet.

I will be eventually. 

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challah #4

challah #4

Joan Nathan's Fennel and Orange-Scented Challah

(print recipe here)

I've added my own notes describing what I've learned over the past four weeks of challah making.

Makes 2 loaves (I halve the recipe if it’s only the 3 of us for Friday night dinner).

1 ½ tablespoons (2 packages) active dry yeast

1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup sugar

Grated zest from 2 large oranges plus 1/2 cup of the juice, strained (I use Cara Cara oranges as the flavor and scent are so lovely!)

cup vegetable or canola oil

3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon salt

7 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon fennel seeds (you might not be a fan of the licorice flavor of fennel but trust me, it’s subtle and it works so well with the orange)

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds

In the bowl of a standing mixer, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 cup of lukewarm water. (I do this bit in a small bowl. I also use an instant read thermometer to test that the water is 110F. I find that’s perfect for the yeast).

Using the paddle attachment, stir orange zest, juice and oil into yeast mixture, then add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, and remaining sugar and salt. (add the sugar and salt together because if you dump the salt in directly, it’ll kill the yeast). Switch to the dough hook and gradually add 6 cups of flour, kneading for about 5 minutes and adding more flour as needed to make a slightly sticky, smooth and elastic dough. (be mindful adding the flour - I find that you need a little less than suggested. I DID throw out a batch when I added the exact amount in the recipe and it was too much. It's a feel thing).

Grease a large bowl, turn dough into it and then turn the dough over to grease the top. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. (If you can, do it overnight – the flavor will have more depth).

When the dough has almost doubled, punch it down, remove it to a lightly floured counter, knead it briefly until smooth and divide it in half. (I do this on a silpat so I don’t need the flour. Adding extra through kneading can make it tough). Roll each piece into a cylinder about 27 inches long, making sure there are no seams in the dough. Bring one end of the dough up to the other and twist to form a spiral. Push both ends together to make a squat 12-inch loaf. Repeat with other piece of dough and arrange loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet at least 2 inches apart. You can also twist the long spirals into a circle if you like; the dough is very malleable.

Beat remaining egg and egg yolk and brush about half the mixture on the loaves, reserving the rest. Let the dough rise uncovered another half-hour or overnight in refrigerator. 

If the dough was refrigerated, bring to room temperature. Heat oven to 350 degrees and in a small bowl, combine fennel, poppy and sesame seeds. Brush the loaves with egg again and sprinkle with seeds.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden and firm when tapped with a spatula. (I use my instant read thermometer again and remove the challah when the interior temperature is 190F. I also have a convection over so I put the temperature a little lower and cook for a little less. Hence the thermometer to make sure it's done).

Cool on a rack. (do this so the bottom doesn’t get soggy).