I never thought that I’d be able to pull off challah. The traditional bread of Jewish Sabbath and holidays, it seemed impossible for a non-Jew to have any success in this department. But I had to try, because it is so good that I can’t stop eating it whenever I start.
The taste of challah is unlike any other bread, for me verging on the taste of a dessert bread. Challah tastes as though it were a potato bread, but there isn’t a bit of potato in it. What distinguishes challah, other than the braiding of the dough, is primarily the number of eggs it includes. It’s also dairy free, because it’s parve.
I used a challah recipe from Smitten Kitchen, a new source for me. The recipe was easy to follow, right up until it wasn’t. Where did I get hung up? You can probably guess, and if you can’t then I would like to refer you to the picture of the challah loaf above. Yes, it was the braiding that was my undoing.
This challah recipe in particular calls for six strands of dough to be braided together. This is definitely not the kind of braiding I learned to do during recess in elementary school. In fact, it was hard enough that I had to look back and forth between the dough and the recipe as I braided, even though I repeated the instructions about a six or times in the braiding process. What’s more, I’m still not sure I interpreted the recipe correctly! My braid is a bit messy.
Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, in contrast, has you braid the dough into just three strands. Doing so is so simple that it needs no directions at all – at least, not if you’ve ever braided hair. You can find his recipe here, but note that it is missing the killer diagrams that are included in the book. Diagrams would have been a big help with the six-strander.
While the rest of the Smitten Kitchen recipe was easy to understand, making challah was a lot of work. Any recipe with 8 cups of flour and 5 eggs is going to give your arms a real workout. Mine were fatigued from Memorial Day water skiing, and it was all I could do to get this dough into shape.
Fortunately this enormous recipe yielded two loaves, which let me freeze one. I’ve always meant to experiment with freezing bread. Will provide an update on how this turns out.
The challah turned out extremely well. The flavor was almost as good as I had hoped, and the texture was almost as light. My only failing I think was the egg wash. Somewhere – and I don’t know where – I read that the secret to good challah is two coats of egg wash. This actually turns out to be a bit crunchy, so if you ever get this advise please ignore it!
My success with challah underscores a point I’ve made before: Bread recipes provide an awesome opportunity to culture surf, perhaps more easily than any other type of food. No need for fancy new spices – just a slightly different proportion of ingredients, and occasionally a slightly new technique.