I have been baking bread weekly (and sometimes more often) for many years now. Over these years, I have gone through several challah recipes, and have had phases in which I have abandoned the weekly challah in favor of some other bread. Here, I am using the word “challah” to refer to a bread made from flour, water, salt, and yeast, enriched with eggs and some sort of fat. There may be add-in ingredients such as raisins, and the loaves are usually braided and glazed with egg, sometimes topped with seeds, and eaten on the Jewish Sabbath. The three cookbooks considered in this post focus on challah and other Jewish breads.
Most challah recipes are quite similar. Recipes may have slight differences in the types and proportions of ingredients, or in the method of preparation. It is important to find one’s own preferences. For flour, I like to use bread flour (King Arthur); I find that this high protein flour makes a better loaf than all-purpose flour. I may use white whole wheat flour for up to half the total amount of flour, if I have an urge to cook more healthily. For liquid, I use water. As my meals are dairy, I suppose that I could use milk, but “challah” with milk is not challah at all, but only rich egg bread. Also, occasionally I have guests who do not eat dairy foods. As with all my cooking, I use kosher salt. I find that two teaspoons of kosher salt for every three cups of flour is the right amount of salt. For yeast, I use SAF Instant Yeast. When it comes to eggs, some recipes use lots of eggs, and some fewer; some recipes use more egg yolks than egg whites. I use whole eggs, and find myself preferring less eggy recipes. Sugar is the most frequent sweetener that I use, but I will sometimes use honey, although honey seems to adversely affect the texture of my bread. I prefer challah that is generously sweetened. For the fat, I rarely use butter, since challah should be non-dairy. Most often, I use olive oil, and sometimes a nut oil. I only use add-ins to the dough on special occasions: e.g., raisins for Rosh Hashanah, or chocolate chips if we are having children over.
Not only do I dislike kneading bread by hand, but I think I get better results when I use either the heavy duty electric mixer or the food processor to knead. I have never understood why bread recipes say to put the dough in a greased bowl to rise; if I use the mixer, I just leave the dough in the mixer bowl to rise, and if I use the food processor, I scrape the dough into an ungreased bowl to rise. Most challah recipes call for one rise before forming the loaves, but some call for two; I have not found a big difference between one or two. I usually make the dough the night before and stick it in the refrigerator for the night. When it is time to form loaves, I like a six strand braid. Three strand braids tend to flab out, giving rather flattened loaves. For circular challah, I form two thick strands, twist them together, then bring the ends together to make a circle. I egg my dough only if we are having guests (and often not even then), or if I have an egg white waiting to be used for something. I encourage you, the reader, to experiment, and find out what you like in a bread that you find yourself making and eating week after week after week …
I am afraid that I am not part of the target audience for The Secret of Challah by Shira Wiener and Ayelet Yifrach, that audience being observant Jewish women with an insular lifestyle and not a lot of experience baking. The background information on challah and customs surrounding challah tend to be more inspirational than informative. The authors go into a lot of detail on the mitzvah of separating challah, which is actually useful. The instructions for braiding challah and for forming loaves of other shapes are illustrated both with clear, easy to follow diagrams, and with photographs of the results. Unfortunately, the authors only go up to six strand braids. The recipes themselves are utilitarian and unremarkable; the authors do not waste words on either recipe introductions or instructions. There are color photographs of almost every loaf. Some of the loaves pictured are beautiful, while others are quite unattractive, and only serve to make me want to avoid a particular recipe.
In the introduction to “Chani’s Shabbat Challah” (page 66), Chani herself is quoted: “I don’t like to give out my recipe because women don’t like to work with sticky dough.” This assertion is troublesome for a number of reasons. To begin with, I really dislike the whole idea of having secret recipes that are not to be shared. Unless a person is making money off some proprietary recipe, there is no reason for this. Next, what about men? Do men like to work with sticky dough? I suppose that in Chani’s world, men do not go near bread. As for sticky dough: I just add flour until I get a dough of the consistency that I like. And what is Chani’s basis for claiming that women don’t like sticky dough, anyway? Furthermore, the sticky dough haters could just use a mixer instead of their hands. But back to the challah: it was ordinary challah, and the dough was no harder or easier to work with than any other challah dough.
Pita dough is very simple: just flour, water, salt, and yeast, possibly a little sugar, and possibly some oil. The whole trick to successful pita is in the process. The recipe in The Secret of Challah uses standard ingredients with no oil, and had bare bones instructions. As far as I can make out from other pita recipes (which I looked at after making pita from this recipe), in order to have the pitas puff you must not roll them out too thinly, and they should bake on a pizza stone in a very hot oven. Also, if you want softer pitas use oil in the dough. Shira and Ayelet give us no pointers for success, and have us cooking the pita lo in a pan in a 400º oven. I ignored this last instruction, and used a baking stone in a 450º oven. About half of my pita breads puffed up and formed a pocket; the others I had rolled out too thin, and so they puffed irregularly with no pocket. I would have liked my pitas softer; they reminded me more of focaccia than pita. [Go to the recipe.]
The Hallah Book: Recipes, History, and Traditions
by Freda Reider, is a very charming and even useful book. This is a short book, with only 88 pages and ten recipes, or, depending on how you are counting, one recipe with nine variations. Freda discusses challah through history, from manna in the desert to today, and challah in different Jewish communities. She is particularly interested in different shapes that challah can take, and the religious significance and folklore attached to these shapes. Her directions for forming these shapes are accompanied by rather primitive drawings, which are nevertheless more informative than photographs. As for braiding, Freda gives instructions for braids made with up to ten strands. This is the best book that I have for challah braiding instructions. Throughout the book, Freda shares stories about bread from her family and friends, ending with a collection of pre-war stories, all of which are very positive. In other hands, much of her material might sound preachy or irritatingly pious; as it is, I find myself liking Freda very much, imagining her (and I hope I am right about this) to be kind, generous, and intelligent. As for her recipe, it is just a standard challah recipe, but she tries to give enough detailed instructions so that anyone can succeed in making this challah. Her variations are interesting and well thought out, more than simple instructions to add raisins or almonds.
I did, however, have two problems with Freda’s basic recipe, “The Family Hallah” (page 29). She calls for one cup of boiling water and a half cup of cold water, to which she adds oil, sugar, salt, and then yeast. She claims that the temperature will be just right for the yeast, but I found the temperature way too hot. Maybe her cold water is from the refrigerator, not the tap, and so much colder than mine. The other problem is that she does not use enough salt. I like to use two teaspoons of kosher salt for every three cups of flour; Freda uses one teaspoon of salt for five to six cups of flour. Even if this is table salt, denser than kosher salt, this is not enough. Other than these two quibbles, her challah recipe is perfectly fine but not remarkable.
Freda’s challah variations include some main add-in ingredient (such as carob and sunflower seeds, or figs, or mahleb), a choice of oil to go with the add-in, additional grains or flours, and other flavorings. I decided to try her “Almond Hallah” (page 34), with almonds and almond oil, oat and rye flours and wheat germ, and very small amounts of cinnamon, ginger, and tumeric. This was a very good bread. The flavorings stayed in the background and were essentially unidentifiable, just accenting the almonds. As can be seen in the picture, I did not egg this challah. The only problem with this bread was that it was slightly dry. [Go to the recipe.]
Unlike the other two challah books, A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World has a mainstream publisher and an author, Maggie Glezer, who is an award winning baker and food writer. There are, in this book, many recipes for egg challah, differing only in very slight ways. There are recipes for sour dough breads and whole grain breads, recipes for bagels and crackers, breads from Ethiopia and Uzbekistan, old traditions and new trends. Maggie’s instructions are detailed, perhaps too much so. The recipes I tried all worked well. The design of the book itself, though, leaves something to be desired. First, the only listing of the breads in the book is in a two page spread entitled “Breads by Category”. I would have found a comprehensive table of contents far more useful, or even a list of the recipes at the start of each chapter. My other complaint concerns the illustrations. The only illustrations are small black and white photographs. The simple drawings in The Hallah Book are far more effective in conveying the techniques of braiding. This book was not cheap, $35 nine years ago, and at that price I expect more than these stingy little illustrations.
It made sense to me to try the recipe “My Challah” (page 94), since, after baking all kinds of challah, this was the bread that the author liked most of all. This recipe is different from other recipes in that most of the liquid is supplied by eggs. The advantages of this, according to Maggie, are a more well-defined braid, and a longer shelf life. I noticed no big difference in either of these challah qualities. I can say that the bread itself did taste eggy, and was not too dry. Danny liked this challah a lot. I, however, did not care for this challah because I hated the dough. It was, as Maggie warned, very stiff and difficult to knead. I want not only to enjoy eating the challah, but to derive pleasure from working with a firm but pillowy dough, which was not this dough.
I much preferred “Breadsmith’s Challah” (page 123), Breadsmith being a franchised artisan bread bakery. What distinguished this challah was the vanilla extract added to the dough. This was not the first time that I had heard of adding vanilla to the challah dough, but it was the first time that I had ever done so. The added flavor is subtle but pleasant. I may begin adding vanilla to my own standard challah recipe.
Both Danny and I are quite fond of Whole Food Market’s cranberry walnut rolls (although these vary from store to store; some are not as good as others). I had these rolls in mind when I made the “Greek Walnut and Currant Rolls” (page 169), and so I substituted cranberries for the currants. The original Greek recipe is for rolls intended to be consumed immediately after Passover. The rolls were very good, although not much like the Whole Foods Market rolls, being much lighter, despite Maggie’s claim that her recipe results in very dense rolls. [Go to the recipe.]
None of these recipes for challah will replace the one that I have been using for many years, a recipe I got from Eileen N which was originally a bread machine recipe. The recipe calls for only a small amount of oil, a little less egg than other recipes, and slightly more sugar. I do not egg my challah as I prefer the taste of plain crust, although the loaves look much less impressive. The recipe below can easily be doubled; if you do so, it is not necessary to double the yeast. The particular loaves in the photograph did not rise that much. Now that fall has truly arrived, we have had to turn on our furnace, but we keep the heat in the house very low. Yeast is not that active in an ambient temperature of 60º. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Shira Wiener and Ayelet Yifrach, The Secret of Challah
3 cups bread flour
½ cup rye flour
2 teaspoons salt
1½ cups warm water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
Combine the flours and salt. Dissolve the sugar and yeast in the water (adding the oil if you are using it). Add the water to the flours and knead until smooth. This you can do by whizzing in the food processor with the steel blade for 30-45 seconds, by using a heavy duty mixer, or (as I never do) by hand. The dough should be smooth and soft but not sticky. Cover, and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Separate the dough into eight balls, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and let is rest and rise for another thirty minutes. Roll out the balls into 5 inch diameter circles. Do not roll out the balls to be too thin, or they will not form a pocket. Cover and let the bread rest and rise for another thirty minutes. At this time, turn on the oven, with a baking stone on the lowest rack, to 450º.
After the oven has been preheating for 30 minutes, you are ready to bake the bread. Put four of the pitas on the baking stone. After about five minutes, turn them over, and cook a few more minutes until brown all over. Remove to a rack and cook the remaining four pitas. When cool, store the bread in a plastic bag.
Adapted from Freda Reider, The Hallah Book
11⁄3 cups warm water
1⁄4 cup almond oil
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ginger
1⁄8 teaspoon tumeric
1⁄3 cup oat flour
1⁄3 cup wheat germ
1⁄2 cup rye flour
4 cups bread flour
1⁄2 cup almonds, toasted and chopped
Mix together the water, oil, honey, yeast, and eggs. Mix together the rest of the ingredients except for the almonds: the salt through to the bread flour. You are now ready to combine the wet and dry ingredients and knead; I do this in the heavy duty mixer, but you could do it by hand if you insist. Knead for about 10 minutes. When you are done kneading, work in the almonds. Put the dough in a bowl (or just leave it in the mixer bowl), cover, and let it rise until doubled. Deflate by gently folding the dough over on itself, then let it rise again. For this second rise, I suggest putting the dough in the refrigerator and continuing the next day.
After the dough has risen a second time, gently deflate the dough. Form two braided loaves, place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and cover with a towel. Let the bread rise until almost doubled. Preheat the oven to 350º. Bake the bread until nicely browned, about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Cranberry Walnut Rolls
Adapted from Maggie Glezer, A Blessing of Bread
1½ teaspoons instant yeast
1¼ cups water
2¼ cups bread flour
2 cups white whole wheat flour
2 eggs (with one of the whites set aside for glazing)
2½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup walnut oil
1¼ cups dried cranberries
1½ cups walnuts, toasted and chopped
Mix together the yeast, water and 1¼ cups of flour. Let this mixture rest for 20 to 30 minutes, at which point it should be showing some activity. Mix in the rest of the flour, one egg and one egg yolk, the salt, and the oil. Knead, using your preferred method (heavy duty electric mixer, food processor, or by hand) until smooth: about 10 minutes by hand or mixer, less than a minute in the food processor. Work in the cranberries and walnuts. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for about one hour. Deflate the dough by carefully folding it over on itself several times, then let it rise again until doubled, possibly another hour. At any point, you may suspend the rising process by putting the dough in the refrigerator; my dough usually spends the night in the refrigerator after the first rise.
After the second rise, line one or two baking sheets with parchment paper. Separate the dough into 24 little balls. Foe each ball, flatten, roll up, flatten, roll up, and then place seam side down on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, leaving room between the balls so that they can expand. When all 24 rolls have been formed, cover the rolls with a towel and let them rise for an hour or two.
Preheat the oven to 425º. Mix up the reserved egg white, and brush over the tops of the rolls. Bake until done, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a rack.
3 cups bread flour
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 cup water
1 tablespoon oil (olive or walnut suggested)
Put the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in the bowl of the food processor, fitted with the steel blade. Mix together the water, egg, and oil. With the motor running, slowly pour the water mixture into the food processor bowl. Process for 30 to 45 seconds. The dough should leave the sides of the bowl and form a ball. Alternatively, knead the ingredients together in a heavy duty electric mixer or by hand. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until doubled. If you don’t want to bake right away, you can stick the dough in the refrigerator.
Form loaves, place on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let the loaves rise until almost doubled. Shortly before you want to cook the loaves, preheat the oven to 350º. Bake until done, about 25 to 30 minutes.