What is all the hype about this bread called Challah? Why does it pique the interest of people world-wide, whether Jewish or not? Of course, there’s the heavenly aromas and delicious taste of rich, right-from-the-oven bread. But is there something more about Challah that draws people in.
The magic of Challah
There is almost nothing more earthy, more elementary, than bread. Every culture has its own type of bread, every society needs bread to live; in fact, bread symbolises the ultimate in physical survival. Jewish law mandates that with a certain minimum amount of dough prepared, a small piece, called Challah, must be separated and an appropriate blessing recited. According to Jewish tradition, when a Jewish woman observes the laws of separating challah properly, she endows her dough – and even her home – with spirituality, and a ‘heavenly aroma’.
Jews have kept this commandment since the Biblical times of Abraham and Sarah. The same tradition has been maintained not just through history but also kept throughout the generations, from grandmother, mother, to daughter and onwards. It’s a time-honoured tradition lovingly passed on throughout the generations. And it continues today, in countless homes throughout the world. Imagine warm from the oven breads, wholesome, homemade goodness used just once a week for a special day, shared by family and friends, created (usually, but not always!) by the woman of the home, draped in royalty, sitting in the middle of a well-set table.
When the Challah is sliced open and shared around the table, the taste and smell reaches every person. Challah brings to mind the scent of home, freshly kneaded dough rising on the counter, creating an imagery of the smell, sight and beauty of those loaves, of a family home-baked bread infused with love and connection, steeped in tradition.
No bakery can duplicate that! Hence the re-emergence of fascination with home-made Challah breads!
Now let’s go into some of the insider secrets of making successful Challah breads. The recipe is open to anyone and the braiding is no secret; I’ve taught thousands of readers and participants how to create amazing Challahs and you can do the same!
I’d like to also offer a bit of advice on the how to’s of making Challah. Since I speak and do demos about Challah and write about it so frequently, people often come to my website to ask questions.
Here’s a very frequent question I get: "I made a Challah dough and it looked good. But after I've shaped it and it is on the baking tray, it seems to rise out instead of upwards and the end result is a flat, wide challah that, although it still tastes good, really doesn’t look that nice. What can I do to make them nicer, aside from using a loaf or oval-shaped pan?"
There are several reasons a challah could spread out and flatten like that. I've been making Challah "free form" for years and I never use any fancy equipment -- just a large cookie sheet or oven tray, lined with parchment paper. My Challahs of course grow more in the oven, and they do rise sideways as well, but mostly they rise upwards, thereby coming out high and beautiful.
Pay attention to the following aspects:
What does your dough look like? It’s impossible to have beautifully shaped challahs if your dough does not come out with a good consistency!
Is your dough very soft to handle, almost like wet cotton, with no real form? Does it seem overly airy and too wet to the touch? Then the problem is that you need to toughen it a bit more; use a bit less water and a bit more flour in your dough until it can be kneaded without sticking to your hands. You may also need to add in a bit more oil. One the dough is less wet and sticky, it will be firmer, and it will naturally hold its shape better.
Another reason it could be losing its shape, which is a very frequent cause I see people doing, is overrising the Challahs after they are shaped. The Challahs should rise about 45-50 minutes total time once they are shaped. In very hot kitchens or very hot climates, sometimes even less time can be sufficient. Then you must egg your Challahs and put them in your preheated oven immediately so they start baking and the rising process will be halted before they lose their beautiful shape.
A final aspect you should check out is the way your Challahs were braided. A three-strand Challah will be somewhat flatter than a six-strand Challah. A Challah that was braided with thicker braids will rise higher than one that was braided with thinner, longer braids. All this comes with experience and trying out different shaping methods. Once you have the method and the shape that you prefer, then you know you’re well on your way to “making your Challahs the best they can be!”
To get you started, here’s an easy, no-fail beginner’s recipe to make just one or two very small Challah loaves.
Just “One Loaf” Small Challah Dough
1/4 cup oil
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup hot water
1/2 tablespoon/ or 1/2-ounce / 25 grams dry yeast
4 – 4 and 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
Place the ingredients in your mixer bowl in the order listed. Using your dough hook, turn the mixer on a low setting and knead this for 10-12 minutes. Or just pull out a large bowl and knead it by hand – it’s small and it’s very easy to do!
If the dough is too dry, add a bit more water and oil; if it is too sticky add a bit more oil and another tablespoon or so of flour. When the dough is done kneading it should come away from the sides of the bowl and should be smooth, elastic, and just a bit sticky. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
After those first 10 minutes, knead again for another 3-4 more minutes. Put a small amount of oil on your hands and smear the dough all over with this. Then, remove the dough from the mixer or bowl. Place it in a large bag to rise, covered by the bag.
In the meantime:
Leave the dough, while covered, to rise until doubled in bulk, about an hour or a bit more. And then, enjoy! You are ready to shape! Bake at 350°F / 180 - 190°C until browned on top and bottom. Smaller Challah loaves only take about 20 minutes (less, if it is just a small roll) to bake.
Learning all about the challah
My signature book on Challah, A Taste of Challah is a cumulative work of many years of baking and experimenting with Challah, yeast doughs, and bread, as well as practice with a wide variety of techniques for braiding and shaping the dough into traditional and unique Challah shapes. I most certainly did not start off knowing anything at all about Challah aside from the intense desire that I wanted really good and beautiful ones!
Today, my book comes alive with my Jerusalem Challah Experience. This way I can offer anyone visiting Jerusalem the experience of making challah together with me, and enjoying it right away.
— Tamar Ansh speaks and performs engaging, interactive Jerusalem Experience challah demos for tour groups, bat mitzvahs and many other events. Get your hands in that dough already and book a private or group challah show! Contact me at email@example.com.
— ALL PHOTOS, article and content are exclusive property of Tamar Ansh. Duplication is forbidden.