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Jewish Journal

Goodies that make you want to challah

by Judy Bart Kancigor

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

From "A Taste of Challah" by Tamar Ansh. Photo by Sharon Bentov

From "A Taste of Challah" by Tamar Ansh. Photo by Sharon Bentov

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, Jewish cooks everywhere are cutting and chopping, searing and sauteing. And towering over our festive holiday spread stands the majestic spiral challah, the centerpiece of our High Holy Day celebration.

"The round challah represents the cycle of life and the cycle of the year," Maggie Glezer said recently in a phone interview from her Atlanta home; she is the author of the award-winning cookbook, "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs" (Artisan, $35).

"In Yiddish it's called faigele or 'little bird.' My hypothesis is originally it probably came from the Ukrainian round bread baked with a bird's head shaped in the center. Perhaps it became simplified, and they lost the bird. The bird represents the quote from Isaiah: 'As birds hovering, so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem.' The symbolism always harks back to something holy, so that we keep God in our sight at all times."

To shape the spiral -- or any shape using strands of dough -- Glezer offers an amazing tip to eliminate air pockets and produce even strands.

"At the American Institute of Baking they have a machine that takes the blobs of dough and sheets them out to a couple millimeters thick for an incredibly fine texture," she explained. "I thought, why couldn't you do that at home?"

For the Rosh Hashanah spiral, roll each portion of dough as thinly as possible into an approximate circle. Then roll the thin sheet tightly into a strand with your palms.

"To lengthen the strand, don't pull," she warned. "Push down, not out, letting the dough extend itself."

Braid the strands and join them to form a circle for the holiday. Braid loosely for the most defined shape.

"But whatever you do will be beautiful," Glezer assures us.

I found a similar technique in "A Taste of Challah" (Feldheim, $34.99) by Tamar Ansh. "This method makes a tremendous difference in how professional your challahs will look, rise and taste. It does take extra time, but it is well worth it," she said.

On this holiday, sweet foods are the order of the day "to usher in a sweet and delectable judgment," Ansh noted. Add raisins or more sugar to the dough or both, but Ansh has another trick up her sleeve: "After the challahs are egg-glazed and ready to be baked, I sprinkle each with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. The smell they emit while baking is absolutely heavenly, and the taste is out of this world. Truly a holiday treat!"

If adding raisins, Ansh suggests that instead of just adding them to the ball of dough, place them on the flat piece of rolled-out dough before you roll it up. "When you go to shape the dough," she explained, "the raisins will all be well hidden inside and will be delicious when the challah is sliced open."

"A Taste of Challah" is a step-by-step primer to making the perfect loaf, and challenges you -- indeed entices you -- to forego that store-bought challah and make it yourself. Its more than 350 photos guide you through the challah-making process with detailed instructions for creating everything from the Shabbat braided challah to challah napkin rings, flower challah rolls, even an intricate lattice-woven challah basket.

One whole section provides tips that demystify the process. "Do not let the challahs over-rise," Ansh cautioned. "When challahs over-rise, they become too light and airy, and later on, when they are glazed with egg they often burst and fall flat. Other times, although they may hold their shape after being egged, the braids may split and come apart in the oven while baking."

But what distinguishes this book most is its overriding sense of awe that this is no ordinary loaf. We see it in the quote by Rashi that opens the book -- "And there was a continual blessing in her dough" -- in the prayers and blessings included and the excursus on the laws of separating the dough, the obligation to separate a small piece of dough and sanctify it.

"According to the Sages, this is one of the few mitzvot for which the entire world was created," Ansh writes. "If challah is not separated when required, the grains are cursed and there is a shortage of food. But if the mitzvah is performed, the grains will grow in abundance and one's house will be blessed."

Glezer echoes the notion that bread is more than a mere accompaniment to a meal. "In the Torah the Hebrew word lechem is synonymous with food. A meal is not a meal unless you're eating bread. Otherwise it is just a snack."

Apple Challah

From "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs" by Maggie Glezer.

2 envelopes (0.25 ounce each) or 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
5 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
3 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling pan and topping
2 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large or 4 medium (about 2 1/2 pounds) baking apples (preferably Braeburn)

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast and 1 cup of the flour. Then whisk in warm water until smooth. Let stand uncovered 10 to 20 minutes, or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.
Whisk eggs, oil, salt and sugar into puffed yeast slurry until eggs are well incorporated and salt and sugar have dissolved. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in remaining 4 cups flour all at once. When the mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto your work surface and knead until smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. (Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough.) If dough is too firm to knead easily, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.
Place dough in the clean, warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough ferment for one hour, or until just slightly puffed.

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