The aroma that fills the house when you bake a braided challah for Shabbat is one of healing. The skilled hand kneading the dough makes everyone smile with satisfaction, the hubbub of the children settles down for a moment, and your helpmeet gazes at you with pride. This is the secret of the magic of the kitchen: its enormous healing power.
Sweet challah has so many gifts that there has never been and never can be a holiday or Friday night without it - it is indeed an oneg Shabbat ("joy of Sabbath" ) challah. It ornaments the Sabbath or holiday table with its captivating beauty, and its addictive taste puts the rest of the dishes, festive as they may be, to shame. The leftovers provide a superb ingredient for tasty desserts.
Yom Kippur is coming up, and nothing can compare to a homemade sweet challah in the center of the holiday table, as a decoration and for wiping up thick sauce from your plate. Nothing is more perfect for lining your stomach before the fast. And after the fast, you can quickly put together a pain perdu ("lost bread" or bread pudding ) from the leftover challah, creating a cake that will sweeten the break-the-fast meal.
Succeeding in the task of making this festive bread takes courage and careful attention, because fear and haste will yield a dense challah with a dominating, yeasty taste. Challah should be crusty on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, with the consistency of silk threads or cotton candy. Don't miss out on the experience of pulling apart a warm challah with your hands and then licking the sweet traces of honey left behind on its crunchy crust.
To attain a challah that is soft and caressing inside and bronzed and crunchy outside, you have to be meticulous about complying with a few rules that will yield pure joy:
Flour: Use designated challah flour, which is high in protein and therefore produces soft dough that is easy to work with. If you do use all-purpose flour, add 1 packet of home-baking enhancer (which comes attached to Shimrit yeast packets ) for each kilogram of flour.
Yeast: Every baker is willing to swear that the yeast she or he uses is better. It's a matter of taste and personal experience. In time you will be able to decide what works best for you - a cube of yeast (it should be a light color; gray indicates that the yeast is old ), a packet of fresh Shimrit, or 2 tablespoons of dry yeast are all good.
Kneading: Knead the dough in an electric mixer with a dough hook for 6 minutes at low speed and another 4 minutes after adding the salt. Excessive kneading will produce a challah that is too fluffy and dry.
Dough: Challah dough should be soft and flexible, and not sticky.
Rising: Leave the dough to rise somewhere warm, at 30-40 degrees Celsius. Rising times depend on the dough's consistency: A hard dough will rise more slowly than soft dough. Test the dough at the end of the rising time by pressing a finger into it: If the indentation remains and bounces back slowly, the dough has finished rising. Generally, 40 minutes in the summer and 60 minutes in the winter is enough. After dividing the dough into strands, let it rest to restore its flexibility. Excessive rising will tire the yeast and the challah will be too dense.
Braiding the challah: A challah is also judged by its beauty. Take the trouble to form strands of an equal diameter. It is important to braid with a light touch and to leave some space as you cross the strands over each other so as to leave room for the dough to rise.
Milk and honey challah
For two challahs:
1 kilo sifted flour, preferably challah flour
1 cup room-temperature mineral or filtered water
50 grams fresh yeast or 2 tablespoons dry yeast
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (80 grams) cane or white sugar
3 tablespoons (40 grams) honey
50 grams room-temperature butter
1/4 cup (50 ml.) sunflower oil
1 egg yolk
2/3 cup (160 ml.) body-temperature milk (slightly warmed)
1 tablespoon (20 grams) salt
1/4 cup body-temperature water (only if needed)
For brushing and coating:
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
white or black sesame, poppy seed, coarse salt, sunflower seeds
3 tablespoon. honey
2 teaspoon lemon juice
In an electric mixer, beat yeast, sugar and 1 cup water. Wait 5 minutes. Attach the dough hook and add the rest of the ingredients, except the salt. Knead for 6 minutes at low speed. At this stage, the dough is even, but slightly sticky.
Add the salt and continue kneading at medium speed for 3-4 minutes. The dough is ready when it is soft and not sticky. If it is hard, add 1/4 cup or less of water and knead for 2 minutes. If the dough is sticky, add a small amount of flour and knead for 1 minute. Lift the dough with both hands and shape it into a ball by pulling the edges of dough underneath and toward the middle.
Transfer the ball to a clean bowl that has been lightly greased. Oil the ball of dough very slightly to keep it from drying out. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and set it down in a warm spot to rise for 40-60 minutes, or until the dough is 60-80 percent more than its original volume (it does not have to double in size).
On a floured work surface, shape the dough into a long, fat log. Use both hands to “strangle” it in the middle, twisting until the dough breaks apart. Divide each half into three equal parts using the strangle-and-twist motion. Cover the dough with a damp towel and wait 10 minutes.
Begin braiding the first challah: Take three parts and roll them out, one at a time, on a floured surface, into strands measuring 3-4 centimeters in diameter and 30 centimeters long. Braid the three strands. Repeat with the remaining three parts of dough (which you have kept under a damp towel until now). Tuck the ends of each braid underneath so they do not come undone.
Line a baking tin with baking paper. Place the challahs on the tin, leaving ample space between them. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave for 30-40 minutes in a warm spot, until the challahs have risen properly.
Fifteen minutes before the end of the rising, heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. When the challahs are done rising, brush them with beaten egg yolk and water, sprinkle them with sesame and coarse salt, or any topping combination of your choice, and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned. It’s a good idea to place a few ice cubes on the bottom of the oven to generate humidity.
In a small pot, heat the honey and lemon juice until the honey dissolves. Drizzle over the challahs when they come out of the oven and leave them to cool.
Challah bread pudding with mango and coconut
8 thick slices of plain or sweet challah (with or without crusts)
1 ripe mango, cut into long slices
2 tablespoons coconut
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
400 ml. coconut milk
200 ml. milk
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
Grease a rectangular loaf pan. Arrange the challah slices in the pan standing on their narrow ends. Arrange the mango slices between the challah slices, and sprinkle with sesame and coconut. In a pot, heat milk, coconut milk, sugar, honey and the vanilla bean, stirring occasionally, until the pot almost comes to a boil. Cool to body temperature. Take out the vanilla bean and scrape the contents into the pot (throw away the pod). Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs by hand with a whisk, add the lukewarm milk mixture and whisk together. Pour over the bread, shifting the slices a bit to allow the batter to be absorbed by all the challah. Bake for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve hot.
Challah bread pudding with bananas and chocolate
I like bread pudding with the crusts left on, which makes for a cake reminiscent of French toast. Some people like their bread pudding smooth and very soft, in which case the crusts should be cut off before soaking the bread.
8 thick slices of plain or sweet challah (with or without the crusts)
2 ripe bananas, cut into diagonal slices
100 grams coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate (you can substitute milk or white chocolate, which kids prefer)
600 ml. milk
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
Grease a 25 x 20 centimeter baking dish. Arrange the challah slices standing on their wide ends. Arrange the banana slices between the challah slices, and sprinkle with chocolate. In a pot, heat milk, sugar, honey and the vanilla bean, stirring occasionally, until the mixture almost reaches a boil.
Cool to body temperature. Take out the vanilla bean and scrape the contents into the pot (throw away the pod). Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a large bowl, beat the eggs by hand with a whisk, pour in the lukewarm milk mixture and whisk together. Pour over the bread, shifting the slices a bit to allow the batter to be absorbed by all the challah. Bake for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve hot.
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