I married into a Jewish family and was quickly introduced to their traditional foods. Many of them are just not for me. Gefilte fish I can definitely live without. (I can’t understand why anyone would grind fish into a goopy mess.) Matzo will never be something I eat outside of Passover; I think you must grow up with it and feel connected to it to appreciate the severe blandness. Otherwise it’s just a heavy saltine without the salt. (A ‘tine?) No matter, though, as matzo is not about culinary creation – it’s about necessity, tradition, and remembrance. That part I get.
Some traditional Jewish foods have become great pleasures that I crave, like latkes with sour cream, matzo ball soup, and golden loaves of Challah. In it’s long history, challah has been an important part of Sabbath and holiday meals but it is simply a fantastic bread, regardless of why you might chose to eat it.
Challah is an egg dough, sweetened with honey and rich with fat. It is similar to brioche but with the major difference that challah is made with oil, not butter, in order for it to be parve, or neutral according to the kosher law of keeping dairy and meat separate within meals.
My version is not strictly traditional – it’s sweeter than most and more dense – but a good Jewish boy marrying a Gentile girl from the South already did us in on that front. The honey gives the crust a deep golden hue, the eggs and oil give a satisfying texture, and the sesame seeds are fragrant when baked. The interior crumb makes a perfect sandwich bread with enough structure for slicing but still retaining some of the flaky pull-apart-ness of lighter, more traditional versions. The flakiness is most apparent when toasted and buttered; you can pull the strands apart with your fingers. We pick apart slabs of challah toast for breakfast, often with raspberry jam.
This recipe makes a gigantic loaf of challah. You could easily divide the dough in sixths instead of thirds before braiding if you want two smaller loaves. I prefer the huge slices from one big loaf and the ease of braiding once, not twice. Besides, my husband would kill me if I gave any away so there’s no need for two loaves in my house.
If your conscience allows, toasted slices of challah make outstanding B.L.T.’s with the honey’s sweetness playing off the smoky bacon. Sacreligious but heavenly.
If you manage to have any go stale, it also makes fantastic French toast.
A rich, tender egg dough sweetened with honey and formed into a golden braid. You can leave the sesame seeds out (or substitute poppy seeds), but they add great flavor when toasted.
1 (0.25 oz) packet active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp.)
1 cup warm water (110-120F)
1 tbs. sugar
2/3 cup canola oil
2/3 cup honey
2 tsp. kosher salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg white plus 1 Tbs. water, for egg wash
sesame seeds, for sprinkling, optional
In a small bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water. Let stand 10 minutes. It should become foamy, proving your yeast is alive.
In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment: Beat together oil, honey, eggs, and salt. Add yeast mixture, mixing well. Add four cups of flour and beat until smooth. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Switch to the dough hook after 5 (total) cups of flour have been added. When the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl, knead on low speed 5 minutes.
Place dough on a floured surface. Knead lightly by hand to help dough pull together completely, using a little more flour if needed, until smooth and elastic.
Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Flip the dough so that the newly-upright side is lightly oiled from contact with the bowl. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place, 1 hour. The dough will not double.
Punch down (deflate) dough on your floured surface. (Literally punch and hit the dough to release trapped air.) Divide into 3 equal pieces. Lightly hand-roll the sections into long, thick strands, 12-13 inches long. Braid and tuck ends under. Place diagonally on a baking sheet (preferably one with a lip around the edge to catch seeds later) lined with parchment paper. Cover and let rise 1 hour.
Heat oven to 350F. Lightly beat together egg white and water. Brush loaf with the egg wash, then sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.
Bake 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Bread is done with it sounds hollow when thumped or an instant-read thermometer reads 190-200F internal.