My parents left this week to return to the States. It was bittersweet sending them off- knowing that I’m now on my own is both exciting and terrifying. I had gotten so used to having my Mom here to help with the baby, to rock him to sleep when he got fussy, to give me advice about imagined ailments, “Is it colic? An ear infection? It must be GAS!” And to have my Dad here for almost three weeks was a treat I thought would never happen. As the president of a successful company, it’s not easy to just take off to the Middle East for close to a month. I am blessed to have such family. I hope one day that my two big brothers- both goofy and incredibly earnest- will brave the journey and come visit too.
So now that I’ve got the house to myself, it’s about time I started figuring out a new schedule. I’ve got big plans for this year: learning Hebrew, possibly going back to work, raising a little boy, and baking Challah!
Challah, Jewish celebratory bread, has a special place in my heart. It was the first bread that I learned to
burn bake, and I’ve used dozens of recipes in my search to find the perfect loaf to serve at our Shabbat table. There were the eggy, sweet, dense loaves. The whole wheat health-nut loaves. The “perfect” loaf, which for years really was that, until something changed and I started screwing it up week after week. Seriously depressing. I’ve decided to try my hat at a completely new (to me) recipe: the Water Challah. No, it’s not bread you eat submerged in a lake, but a fluffy, bakery style loaf that is light and a wee bit sweet. No eggs here, just 7 simple ingredients that everyone has in their kitchen already. Most challah recipes consists of 7 ingredients, which alludes to Shabbat- the 7th day of the week.
In the Torah (our Holy book, lifeline, and basic guide for everything) it states that there are three distinct mitzvot (commandments) that are specifically designed for Jewish women: to prepare and set aside a portion of Challah (in the Temple period this small portion of dough was used in a specific ritual. Now it is safely discarded), Niddah– or Family purity (a topic which I have yet to figure out how to broach here, but believe me you, it will happen), and Hadlakat Neirot – lighting the Shabbos and Holiday candles. Interestingly enough, this creates the acronym CHaNaH, or Chana, my Hebrew name. When I chose my name prior to conversion, I felt that there could be no better choice than Chana, the epitome of Jewish female spirituality.
Our sages teach us that when Man was created, he was formed out of mist and dirt and kneaded together, much like dough, to create a living being. We learn that bread is a unique food because it needs to be prepared. Unlike a fruit which is readily edible, wheat must go through several processes before it becomes flour. The end of the blessing we say before eating bread “hamotzi lechem min haaretz”, thanks G-d for bringing forth bread from the earth. Although we give the effort to harvest the wheat, knead the dough, and bake the bread, the food is truly a gift we receive. When a Jewish woman kneads together individual ingredients to create a nourishing food for her family, it heightens her and her home to a holy place.
The Original recipe from TheKosherChannel.com uses 5 pounds of flour. In Jewish law, one needs to use at least 5 pounds of flour in Challah dough if you want to make a blessing over the separated portion. It makes 8 loaves and dats’ a whole lotta Challah. The recipe is easily halved or you can freeze the formed loaves, double wrapped in plastic. Just take them out of the freezer on baking day, allow them to come to room temperature, rise until doubled and bake. This is a great website for tweaking recipe amounts: http://www.fruitfromwashington.com/Recipes/scale/recipeconversions.php
For those of you in Israel, 5 pounds of flour equals about 2.26 Kilos.
5 cups warm water
1 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons yeast
4 tablespoons Kosher salt
5 pounds flour
1 ½ cups sugar, divided
(1 egg, beaten, for glazing the loaf)
Pour the warm water and oil into a very large mixing bowl. The biggest bowl you can find should do the trick. Like I said, this makes a ton of Challah.
Stir in a half cup of the sugar. Sprinkle yeast over the water and whisk until yeast is completely dissolved. Allow the bowl to sit for a few minutes. If the yeast is active, it will become frothy and bubbly. If nothing happens, your yeast is no longer active or your water was too hot. Discard this batch and start again with new yeast. I find it helps to keep dry yeast in the refrigerator to keep it fresh for as long as possible.
Add the flour, sugar and salt to the bowl, stirring as you go.
On a clean counter top, knead the dough until smooth- you might need to add a bit of flour or water if the dough seems dry or too sticky. The dough will begin as a shaggy mess, but end up as a large, smooth boule. You can use the windowpane trick to tell if the dough has been kneaded enough. When it seems fairly smooth, tear off an olive sized portion of dough, roll it into a ball, and flatten it in your palm. Stretch the flattened dough. If it stretches until you can see light through it, like a windowpane, the dough is done. If it tears, you’ve got some more kneading to do. This trick works for most doughs.
Clean out the large bowl you used for mixing the dough. Using a bit of vegetable oil, completely coat the inside of the bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, flipping it over once to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl and let it rise until doubled in size. I like to turn on the oven to a low temperature for about 1 minute, then turn it off, and put the bowl inside, or place the bowl on a sunny spot on my porch (Just make sure it is covered, or else you might attract critters!). Alternatively, you can put the dough in a large garbage bag, remove the air, and tie a knot at the top. Place in the fridge to rise over night. In the morning, place on the counter top and bring to room temperature. Then put in an oiled bowl, cover, and rise until doubled.
When the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 350 degrees (176 degrees C). Deflate the dough (no need to punch!) with your hands. Say the blessing:
BA-RUCH A-TAH A-DO-NOI ELO-HAI-NU ME-LECH HA-O-LAM A-SHER KID-SHA-NU B’MITZ-VO-TAV V’TZI-VA-NU L’HAF-RISH CHAL-LAH*
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah.
Separate a small piece, approximately 1/10 of the dough, or a large hunk and say “This is Challah.” If you are in Israel, wrap the piece of dough in two layers of plastic, and discard. If outside of Israel, you can wrap the piece in foil and place it in the back of your oven to burn, or burn on your stove top. In either case, that portion of dough will not be used.
Shape the dough into eight loaves. Place the shaped loaves on a sheet pan that has been greased or lined with parchment paper. You can also bake the loaves in a greased loaf pan for sandwich-style Challah (This recipe makes the most excellent toast). Cover with greased plastic wrap. Allow to rise for about an hour, until risen to approximately 1.5 its size. After rising, brush with beaten egg and bake 25-35 minutes until golden. The loaves are done when they sound hollow if you rap on the bottom with your knuckle. Allow loaves to cool for a few minutes before removing from the pan to a wire rack and cooling completely. Don’t cut into the loaves before they are completely cooled, as the insides will become gummy. .
To learn more about Challah and how it fits into a Jewish lifestyle, click here.