“In America you can have a challah everyday.”
– a Yiddish lullaby found in Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America
Jacob and I recently made a big exciting addition to our kitchen: a lovely cherry-red Kitchen Aid Mixer. I thought that baking a fresh challah would be a nice way to break it in, so I turned to our cookbook shelf to figure out where to start: Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. After all, I was in America, and I wanted to do some Jewish cooking, so why would I look anywhere else?
If you’re not already familiar with her, Joan Nathan is the authority when it comes to Jewish cuisine. Jacob invested in this cookbook soon after we started dating and it’s a really delightful read. The recipes emphasize the way Jewish cooking has evolved in the last century as Jewish families emigrated to the United States, adapting recipes from diverse origins throughout Europe to suit New World tastes and available ingredients. Peppered throughout the cookbook are stories that emphasize the vast cultural exchanges going on, such as Coca-Cola (one of the earliest products to be made kosher in the US) becoming a favorite secret ingredient in Midwest brisket recipes. And recipes like Nathan’s Georgian Jewish Southern Fried Chicken highlight the kosher tweaks made to popular American foods – swapping breadcrumbs for matzoh meal, lard for vegetable shortening, and dipping chicken into egg instead of milk.
For my first attempt at challah bread, I settled on this recipe shown to Nathan by Manfred Loeb. Below you’ll see a picture of him showing her children how to twist the challah. I of course did not have a Manfred Loeb in my kitchen to show me what was what, so I opted to go with the easier version of this that braids 3 strips at a time instead of 6. You’ll notice in the instructions below it says, “For those who want less of a challenge…” That’s me! No shame in that. Also, you’ll notice things start to sound really complicated in step 8. It helps make sense of it if you read it aloud to yourself, or better yet, have someone read it aloud for you while you’re braiding.
I thought my challah turned out well, but a little dry and hard to roll out. Next time I won’t be afraid to add a little more water to the dough.
As found in Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/4 cups warm water
- 5 to 6 cups bread flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
- Handful of sesame or poppy seeds
- Cornmeal for dusting
- In a large containing dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1 cup of the warm water (105 to 115 degrees) and let stand for 10 minutes.
- Place the flour in a large bowl. Add the dissolved yeast and stir with a spoon. Add the remaining sugar, salt, 2 eggs*, and the vegetable shortening. Beat about 1 minute and then mix by hand. When the dough begins to leave the side of the bowl, turn it onto a lightly floured surface to knead. You can also use a dough hook in a mixer to blend and knead.
- Knead for about 15 minutes or until soft, adding more water or flour as necessary.
- Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning the dough over so that the entire surface is lightly greased; cover the bowl with a cloth. Let rise in a warm place (75 to 80 degrees) for about an hour or until the dough doubles in size. Punch down and divide into 2 balls.
- Divide each ball into 6 snake-like pieces and roll out, about 12 inches long.
- Place all 6 strands n a board side by side, pressing the 6 ends together. Divide into 2 groups of 3 strands.
- Now braid the 6 strands. Take the strand from the extreme left and place it over the other 2 and into the center. Take the second from the right and place it over the top to the far left. Take the one from the far right to what is now the center of your 6 strips. Then take the second one from the left and put it to the far right and take the far outside on the left to what is now the center. Go back to the right side and take the second from the right and put it over to the far left. Always work with the 2 outside strands. Continue braiding until the dough is used up. When you have finished squeeze the ends together. Repeat with the second loaf.
- For those who want less of a challenge, divide each ball into 3 strands and braid. Place the outside strip over the middle one, then under the third. Pull the strips tight. Continue braiding. (Mr. Loeb braids half way through and then flips the challah, continuing to braid to the end. This way he gets a more even braid.) When finished braiding, tuck in the ends. Repeat with the remaining 3 strips.
- Using a pastry brush, brush the challah with the remaining egg mixed with water and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. After you have brushed the bread, dip your second finger in the egg wash and indent the top of the breads. Then dip your finger in the seeds and touch the indented area again to make a more striking design.
- Sprinkle a cookie sheet with cornmeal and place the loaves on top. Cover with a plastic sheet and let rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.
- Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until golden.
Yield: 2 loaves
*To reduce the cholesterol you can use 1 egg white and 1 whole egg instead of 2 eggs.