Challah is the quintessential Jewish bread. Bagels might well be more universally appreciated, thanks to their rotund form and suitability for filling with goodies, but when it comes to Jewish homes, Challah is where it's at. Friday night? The Challah has its own, special blessing. New year? The normal, braided shape is replaced by a lovely round loaf, representing continuity, a crown, or the circle of life, depending on who you ask. For particularly festive occasions, honey and raisins are added to bring joy and happiness.
The baking and eating of challah goes back a very, very long way - all the way to the Exodus from Egypt, when two portions of manna were distributed to the children of Israel on Fridays. Nowadays, challah is makes a great addition to the typical Jewish Friday night dinner - great for dunking in the chicken soup, even better for spreading with chopped liver. The following morning, it tastes divine toasted and eaten with butter and jam.
So what makes Challah special? Well, to be honest, mostly it's the fact that you usually eat it when you're relaxed and getting ready to enjoy the weekend. But it's also a really tasty bread. Light, soft and slightly sweet, it is well worth the effort. Most people buy them in their local Jewish deli, but if you feel like spending some time in the kitchen, or need to impress your in-laws (they will be impressed - trust me!), I recommend making your own. It's not hard, but you need to give the dough plenty of time to rise. The challah will then bake to a golden, rounded, beautiful loaf, filling your kitchen with the comforting aroma of a Jewish Friday night.
The recipe I use is from my trusty Claudia Roden - if you're at all interested in Jewish food, Jewish history, or the history of Jewish food, you need to get hold of this book.
Challah - two big loaves
2 tablespoons dried yeast
500 ml lukewarm water
100 g sugar
4 eggs, beaten, plus 1 for glazing
1 tablespoon salt
125 ml vegetable oil
About 1.3 kg plain flour
poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
Dissolve yeast in water with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Mix, leave 10 minutes until frothy.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add salt, sugar and oil, and beat again. Then add frothy yeast mixture and beat well. Now add the flour gradually, just enough to make a soft dough. Mix well, first with a wooden spoon, then with your hands. Knead vigorously for about 15 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Pour a little oil in the bowl, and turn the dough over until it is greased all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm for 2-3 hours, or until doubled in size. Punch down and knead again, then divide into two pieces to make two loaves.
To braid it, like the picture, follow instructions here, if you need them.
Place loaves on a well oiled baking sheet, with plenty of room to expand. Leave to rise for one hour. Then brush with a beaten egg and sprinkle with seeds, and bake in a preheated 180 C oven for about 30-40 minutes. Enjoy!