Wednesday, October 8, 2014

my mom's challah bread!

Photo credit: My mom, Debby 

For me, the holidays have always been about meaningful gatherings and food. Ever since I was a little kid we would host our family and friends. My grandparents, great-aunt, and cousins would come over and everyone would get dressed up. The leaves outside would be turning colors, cooler air would come through the open windows, and the house smelled great. It was my favorite time of year. 

Since moving to Denver three years ago, we have been working hard at building our community, and by that I mean inviting our friends and neighbors over (regardless of their ethnicity or background) to share in a few of our traditions (tradition!). We've hosted some interesting Passover seders (too much wine drinking, too little afikomen finding), lit Chanukah candles, consumed potato latkes, and invited guests over to dip apples and challah in honey which is the way we start Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

This New Year has been hard, as it's the first round of holidays without my father who passed away in May. I was feeling a bit withdrawn and I wasn't even sure I wanted to do anything to mark the holidays. But then, about 2 weeks ago, a FedEx package arrived at my front door. In the parcel was a plastic bag which contained 2 perfectly round challah, wrapped in my mother's signature packaging of choice- aluminum foil. I didn't even have to look at the return address to know who sent them; I knew immediately. It made my day, and it served as a reminder that traditions carry on despite the difficult losses we suffer along the way.

Photo credit: My mom!
I put the challah in the freezer (because without preservatives they don't last long) and took them out to thaw a few hours before they were to be served. Moments before our neighbors arrived, I popped them in the oven at 200 degrees for about 10 minutes. The entire house smelled like home; not my current home, but my childhood home. It's incredible how a tickle of the olfactory nerve can conjure up years gone by. Anyway, I cut a few slices of challah, and we dipped it in some outstanding local honey. Then we made a few toastsM. ay this be a year filled with love, health, happiness, peace, compassion, prosperity and understanding. Happy 5775!

From My Mom
Throughout the year, the traditional Sabbath bread, the Challah, is usually made by braiding strands of dough.  At this time of year, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as well as the other High Holidays, it is customary to use round challahs.  Some say it points to the cyclical nature of the year.  It is also traditional to dip the challah (as well as apples and various other items) in honey which symbolizes wishes for sweetness in the days to come, and along those lines, round challahs usually have raisins baked inside.
I recently graduated to using a bread machine to get the dough started. 
Here is my recipe:

1 cup very warm water
¼ cup oil
1 egg + 1 for top, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour + more as kneaded
½ cup sugar
1 package yeast
Raisins, as needed

Check out your raisins before you begin. If they don’t seem plump enough when you open the bag or box, place in a bowl, pour some boiling water to cover, and let them sit.  The water will absorb and fluff out your raisins and make them sweeter, too.

Place all ingredients except raisins into bread machine and select ‘dough only’ cycle.  Take the egg for shine on top out of refrigerator; if it is too cold it may inhibit the dough from further rising.

When the ‘dough only’ cycle completes, remove dough to a large, floured bowl.  If you want to make braided challah, you will then need to work on a large, flat surface.  If baking round challah, you can shape them straight from the bowl. 

Knead the dough till all air bubbles are out, maybe 10 -15 minutes.  Add flour to your hands as you knead, to avoid sticky dough getting glued to your hands.  Divide the dough into an equal number of portions, continuing to eliminate air bubbles and minimize stickiness.   This is the appropriate time to add raisins.  Tuck 2 or 3 at a time into a portion of dough, knead some more, add a few more raisins, trying to space them out.

Shape the challahs, either in pans or on cookie sheets.  Let rise about 1 ½ hours, possibly covered with slightly moist towel.  If your oven has a ‘proof’ cycle, that works wonders at this point. “Line” the top with egg to give the finished product a nice shine. Bake in a 350 degree preheated oven for 35 minutes or until challahs appear done.

If you will be baking challahs often, you might want to ‘cheat.’  Go to and look for their varied sized challah baking pans.  They are easy to use and turn out professional-looking challah without braiding.
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