Olive oil lamps and tabun-baked flatbreads were the centerpieces of the first Shabbat tables. As Jews dispersed around the world, candles replaced oil lamps, and the loaves used for the blessing over the bread sometimes changed as well. In the fifteenth century, Jews settled along the Rhine River, and were inspired by the local braided egg breads to bake challah. At that time, every challah was artisanal! The woman of the house mixed her own dough, shaped it by hand, and baked it fresh for Shabbat. With the arrival of commercial baking, for many families the art of preparing a homemade challah was lost. Now, many people are reclaiming the skill of baking their own challah for Shabbat. They are rediscovering the serenity that comes from feeling the flour on their hands, kneading the dough, and filling their home with the sweet smell of fresh challah being baked.
More after the jump.
Currently, there are 216,000 recipes for challah online, 219 challah-baking demonstrations on You Tube, and 14,700 challah related facebook pages. There are spaces in message boards dedicated to discussing the challenges of getting the challah to turn out just the way the baker wants it. Men, women, amateur and professional bakers, and foodies from everywhere are happy to share their experiences. This interactive world of the Internet has become our new shtetl marketplace. We can just casually complain that our dough failed to rise, and anyone who hears us can pitch in with a suggestion.
Some of the best challah recipes have been compiled in a book called The Secret of Challah, by Shira Wiener and Ayelet Yifrach.
In The Secret of Challah, we learn how to perform the mitzvah of Hafrashat challah, or “separating challah.” This custom takes us back to the 10th century BCE, to the First Temple in Jerusalem. We separate the prescribed amount of dough before we start braiding our challah. The blessing which we say over this piece of dough is
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hafrish challah.
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to separate challah (from the dough).
We then hold the piece of dough and say
Harei zoh challah.
This is the challah.
This piece of dough is burned, to remind us of the portion of grain every family gave to the Kohanim serving in the temple (Numbers 15:17-21). This is what is meant by “challah is taken” on packages of kosher bread or matzah.
This book has beautiful photography, and can handily guide most people through the process of braiding six strands of dough into a splendid, golden challah for Shabbat. There is a wonderful chapter about decorative traditions for the challah in different communities.
My family baked Chani’s Shabbat Challah from The Secret of Challah. Here is an adaptation.
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1-tablespoon salt
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 4 eggs
- 9 cups flour
Combine the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and put in a warm place. After about ten minutes, the mixture should be foaming. Add the eggs, flour, salt, and oil. Knead the ingredients into dough and cover the bowl with the towel. Let the dough rise for one hour.
Remove the dough from the bowl. Separate it into three pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope. Braid the challah and place in a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Allow the challah to rise for another forty minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beat the yolk of two eggs, and brush the challah.
Sprinkle sesame seeds and poppy seeds over it.
Bake the challah for 30 to 40 minutes.
For some people, mixing the dough from scratch is too time consuming and messy. This is no reason to miss out on all the fun! For those who don’t want to knead their own dough, it is possible to order frozen Kosher challah dough online. Wenner Bread Products is a family owned industrial bakery, which operates under the supervision of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. If you order their kosher challah dough, you can go straight to braiding and baking. Challah has already been taken at their facility.
For those who yearn for interpersonal interactions, Chabad hosts weekly challah baking workshops, charging only a nominal fee for materials. About fifty years ago, the Rabbis’ wives started to invite women from their respective communities to bake challah for Shabbat and learn about Judaism. These rebetzins preserved challah recipes from their grandmothers that otherwise would have been lost in the ashes of the Holocaust. Chabad is not famous for its gourmet food, yet when it comes to challah baking no one can compete with them! There is no one “Chabad challah recipe” that is used in all the Chabad centers around the world. Their instructors are very adventurous! Chabad collects recipes from everywhere and everyone. Every challah baking session tries one or more different recipes. Chabad wants as many people as possible to learn how to bake challah. As a result, they have created a challah baking class for the deaf, taught in American Sign Language.
Chabad’s success has not gone unnoticed. Many Jewish Federations and synagogues in the United States have added challah baking as fun hands-on way to build community. It is one of the most popular activities created for Birthright alumni. Hillels in colleges across the country are coordinating Challah for Hunger baking sessions. These challahs are sold, and the money goes to charity. In my community, my dear friend Rabbi Fredi Cooper has started a group named Kesher. Kesher volunteers meet in the kitchen of our synagogue and bake fresh challahs. These challahs are delivered to welcome every new baby in the community, to homebound seniors, and people in hospitals.
Are you too busy or antisocial to participate in a challah-baking workshop? That is no excuse not to bake your own challah! You can follow step-by-step instructions in this video.
I love baking challah with my children. This activity is a way of turning Friday after school time into a special occasion leading up to Shabbat dinner. My philosophy is that it is the process that matters, not the product. Our challah would never win any sort of award for presentation or taste! I love to play beautiful music for Shabbat on You Tube while we measure the ingredients and knead the dough. One example is this video. I set the Shabbat table while we let the dough rise. We only have time to let it rise once, but we don’t let that stop us from enjoying ourselves! The kids form their challahs. It is possible to be so creative! A challah doesn’t have to be in the form of a braid. It can be shaped like a bunch of grapes, a key, and even a hamsa (hand shaped amulet). Then, my magnum opi paint the challah with egg yolk, to give it a golden sheen. The challas are sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and poppy seeds. We put the challahs in the oven one hour before dinner is scheduled to begin. This gives them enough time to bake, and then cool off a little before they are served.
What I love the most about baking my own challah is that it is part of the process of turning my home into a cocoon for Shabbat. No matter what else has happened during the week, this is a time to minimize all the bad things, and accentuate the special. I focus on creating a festive environment, with the sounds of Shabbat music, the tactile pleasure of kneading the dough, the smells of yeast and baking bread, the sight of beautiful golden loaves emerging from the oven, and the taste of fresh, warm, sweet challah. To me, the smell of a baking challah is the smell of love.