Happy Challah Days!
By Sarah Kauzmann l December 14, 2022
I have decided my official favorite “season” is the holiday season which I deem October - December. This includes my favorite holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (and New Years Eve too!). There’s something so magical and special about December though, with all the lights, the yummy food, the promise of friends and family gatherings and the first snowfall, you can almost taste the cheer in the air.
Better yet, you can taste the cheer in all the amazing foods that pop up each year. My favorites include gingersnap cookies, hot cocoa, Christmas apps (appetizers at any holiday are my favorite), and, this year I’m adding challah bread to the list of favorites. I’ve always loved challah from the first time our neighbor shared a loaf with my family that she had made. From its rich flavor and soft texture to the dark golden brown crust and its intricate braids, challah is uniquely delicious but it also has a beautiful meaning and history.
Bread is part of almost every Jewish holiday, and has been for over 4,000 years! Kneading, shaping, baking, blessing, and sharing it are all honored and it is used to welcome the Sabbath every Friday evening and on Jewish holidays. Traditionally, challah is defined as any bread used in Jewish ritual. In the first few thousand years of Judaism, challah was richly layered breads, pita pockets, and flatbreads from Yemen, Syria, and the Caucasus region respectively. Later in Hungary it contained poppyseeds, in Libya it included orange blossom water, and in Spain, it was even mixed with pumpkin. It is the Jews of the Ashkenazi world, those who traveled to Central and Eastern Europe who we have to thank for the egg-rich, braided bread we recognize today as challah.
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The braids, strands, or arms intertwined symbolize many things from love, truth and peace to creation, freedom, and harmony and family connection, unity, and justice. They also follow the commandments to remember, observe, and guard Shabbat. Nowadays, you can find challah in many forms. There is the traditional six-stranded braided challah loaf but it can be sweetened or made more savory, raisins can be added to it as well as sesame seeds or poppy seeds can adorn the top. It’s typically recommended that challah be eaten the day it is baked lest it dry out, unless you are planning to make challah french toast (challah’s egg-rich soft texture makes for an excellent french toast base).
As someone who has had the privilege to celebrate a few Jewish holidays with friends, I have never experienced a culture that has such symbolism and appreciation for the food they are eating. Each bite has thousands of years of tradition within it that are honored in an incredibly humbling way. I encourage everyone to try something new this December whether you’re celebrating a holiday or not. You never know what you will discover when dipping your toes in a new ocean of flavors, experiences, and cultures. Happy Holidays!
Yield: 1 loaf
1¾ tsp Active Dry Yeast
1½ tsp plus ¼ cup sugar
¾ cup water
¼ cup vegetable oil
1½ tsp salt
4 cups flour
1. Heat the water until just slightly lukewarm/warm then dissolve the yeast in it with 1½ tsp sugar.
2. Whisk oil into yeast/water mixture.
3. Beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, then add remaining sugar and salt.
4. Gradually add the flour until dough comes together, then turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead until dough is smooth.
5. Place dough in clean, lightly greased large mixing bowl and cover. Place in warm area to rise for one hour.
6. After rising, punch down the dough then allow to rise once more for half an hour.
7. When dough is done rising, preheat the oven to 375°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
8. Turn the dough out on lightly floured surface and cut into six even balls then roll them into six strands about 14 inches long and 1 inch wide.
9. Place all six strands in a row parallel to one another and pinch the tops together. Now, imagine each strand has a number 1-6, numbered left to right.
10. Lift the outside right strand (strand 6) all the way to the left and the outside left strand (strand 1) all the way to the right.
11. Take strand six (which is all the way to the left) and move it two strands over (between strands 3 and 4) then move the strand second to the right (strand 5) all the way over to the left.
12. Repeat step 11 but with the opposite side: move the strand all the way to the right (strand 1) over two (between strands 3 and 6) then move the second to the left strand (strand 2) all the way to the right.
13. Repeat steps 11 and 12 until all strands are braided (if having trouble, YouTube has many videos on how to braid 6-stranded challah). Pinch the ends together and tuck underneath (for a circular loaf, twist the braid into a circle and pinch ends together).
14. Carefully lift the braided challah onto prepared baking sheet.
15. Whisk remaining egg and brush on top of dough (this helps create the beautiful golden brown color).
16. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until center of bread reaches 190°F. 17. Allow to cool on wire rack then enjoy.
Sarah Kauzmann, MHS ’12, Lehigh Univ. Masters ’17. She has been baking since she was old enough to hold a spoon, and is the owner/operator of pipitsbakery.com.