It is early Friday morning and I am happily and comfortably (in my PJs) downstairs in the kitchen preparing to make Challah - the bread deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. My green countertop can hardly be seen underneath the thin layer of white flour. Anyone who knows me well can attest that I am a messy cook and baker. The eggs are patiently sitting in a pink bowl, waiting to be cracked once they reach room temperature. I am sipping my first cup of coffee while I watch the sunlight shine on the Gulf of Mexico outside my living room window. All seems good with the world. It is too early for music, but later as the dough is rising, I will put on my favorite Jewish music CD – Shabbat Unplugged, sung and produced by a good friend of mine. This will help me further get in the mood to bring in the Sabbath. Shabbat (the Hebrew word for the Sabbath) is a wonderful time to relax, unwind and reflect on the prior week. It is also the premier opportunity to celebrate family. This Shabbat will be an especially sweet one, as my son, Jake is coming home for spring break. I miss him and it will be just wonderful to have his smiling face around for the next week.
I haul out my heavy (but sleek looking) Kitchen Aid which will do most of the work for me. Certainly my ancestors did not have the benefit of modern appliances and had to knead the dough by hand. In fact, some purists swear by the knead-by-hand method. But I have found that taste is not sacrificed and precious time is saved, if a Kitchen Aid mixer or food processor is used. As you will see from the recipe below, the initial part of the process is quite simple and within 10 minutes or so, a beautiful, slightly shiny and large round ball is ready to be placed in a bowl for its first rising.
Making challah on Fridays has become a labor of love for me. It gives me the opportunity to set the mood for Shabbat, continue the tradition that my ancestors started thousands of years ago and provide my family with a nourishing and nurturing environment. And besides it tastes great! I always make two loaves and I try to give one of them to a friend or a member of the community who is in need of a little love. Or if all of the family is home, we keep both loaves and use one for Challah French Toast on Saturday morning. You have never tasted anything so good!
My mother and grandmothers never tried to make challah from scratch and I am not sure why. They were all phenomenal bakers but on Friday afternoons, my brother or I would make the weekly run to Webber’s bakery in Port Washington to get a rye bread and a challah. The recipe below was given to me a few years ago by a friend of mine at one of our informal cooking club sessions and I have now made it my own. I love the idea that it is becoming a Weston family tradition and it is extremely gratifying to know that I am introducing this to the grandkids at a very early age. When they came for a visit, they loved baking challah with me and once back in Boston, they pleaded with their mom to call Mimi so she would come over and make challah for them. Could life be any sweeter?
Yields: 2 large challahs
1 heaping tablespoon Perfect Rise Dry Yeast (or 1 ¾ packages of Fleischmanns yeast)
1 ¾ cup warm water
¾ cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon salt
5 large eggs
3 ½ - 4 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
5 cups King Arthur bread flour
sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Mix the yeast in warm water until dissolved. Mix sugar and oil in bowl of mixer and add yeast once dissolved. Beat in 4 of the eggs, one at a time. Add salt. Mix in two cups of the all-purpose flour. Switch to the dough hook. Add the bread flour gradually, kneading and continue as the mixture gets thicker. Add the remaining all-purpose flour as needed to make a thick, round ball.
Place the dough in a well-oiled bowl and cover with saran wrap. Let rise until twice the size. Remove from bowl, punch it down and then cover and let rise again.
Take half the dough and divide into six strands about 14 inches long. Braid. Place on oiled baking sheet. Repeat with other half. Let the loaves rise, uncovered, another hour.
Beat the remaining egg and brush the egg on the loaves. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.
Pinch six strands together at the top.
•Outside right strand over 2 toward the middle
•2nd from left to far right
•Outside left over 2 toward middle
•Second from right to far left
Repeat until done and pinch ends together well.
Note: For someone who only raised boys, these braiding instructions come in handy!