Mother of All Breads

Challah

Challah = "Chalee"

Challah holds an interesting place in the lore of my family. My Mom has been known to speak longingly of her Grandmother who, according to the lore, was a legendary baker. Mom’s Grandmother had two sons and two daughters. If we could transport our selves back in time to visit her kitchen on a late Friday afternoon we would see a kitchen table holding – among other things – a challah for each of her kids to take home to their families, plus mini-challahs for the grandchildren.

(Okay, scorecard: That’s five challahs (one for her), plus several mini ones, plus strudel (which deserves a blog of its own), plus untold other goodies. Oh, and yeah, a little thing called Sabbath dinner too. And that was just Friday. What can I say? The woman, may she rest in peace but frequently haunt me with her skills, was a machine.)

This speaks volumes to me. Here was woman from “the old country” likely carrying out the household “duties” that generations of “her” women carried out and bequeathed to her. Yet the little challahs always make me think that she expressed a great deal of love and caring through the simple execution of her “duties.” It can be tempting to bake something and be boastful about it, but the love expressed through that baking is what really feeds people.

Nothing surprising there. Moms of my generation have more ammunition in their arsenal of ways to express their love. Some still do it by baking bread, others do it by bringing home the bacon, but I’d be willing to bet that “Eat, eat! You look too thin!” is a maternal exhortation that easily crosses generational and cultural lines. I expect that as I write this there’s a Mother Elephant in the African wild trumpeting it to her youngsters.

You could almost say that challah is the mother of all bread. Bread itself is called the staff of life, but there’s something about challah, supercharged as it is with eggs, that seems particularly life sustaining.

(Before we go any further, it is important to explain that the correct pronunciation of challah – at least where I come from – is chalee. I have no idea why or if it is indeed a regional aberration. For the record we did the same thing to matzo. It was always mutzee.) (And don’t stress over the “CH” sound. If you can’t do it, no worries.)

Anyway, the lesser bit of challah lore in my family pertains to the large, elaborately braided, ornamental challah that was served at my Bar Mitzvah. It was baked by my Mom’s Aunt’s Brother-In-Law (did I lose you?) whose last name was Oven. A baker named Oven? I love it!

As you can tell, challah was traditionally a “special event” bread. Besides the weekly Sabbath, a big challah is always ceremoniously broken at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. What is more elemental than symbolically breaking bread with friends and family?

As breads go, challah is a star. Let’s face it, the rich eggy inside and the sweet shellacked crust are almost magic opposites; an odd couple that only the god of French toast could have created. It is no surprise that challah has been transported from an ethnic, special event food to sandwiches everywhere.  Would my great-Grandmother have approved? (I say yes.)

Having now gone to great lengths to sing the praises of a loaf of bread, you may have assumed that I have baked challah before. The truth is that the challah pictured above is the first one I have ever baked. And having now baked challah, I will forevermore consider it my “go to” bread. It’s really easy.

As with any bread, the work is all front loaded. You wonder, “What about all that kneading? Isn’t it hard work?” No: I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. It does all the manual labor. I just measure the ingredients. The Kitchen Aid does the mixing and kneading, the yeast does the rising, and then the oven takes over. If anything my skills were organizational more than anything else. I will admit that it is a process that takes several hours, but they are hours you can spend on other tasks. The shiny, imperious loaf you see above? I made that while I watched a movie.

“Ah,” you smirk, “What about the braiding?” Not necessary. The loaf you see above was made for Rosh Hashanah; for this holiday, challah is traditionally shaped into a spiral round loaf. The symbolism is vague: it either represents God’s crown, the spiral progression upward through life’s cycles, or the wheel of the seasons. For other times of the year, I’ll just plunk the flabby, puffy dough into loaf pans and bake them as big, fat loaves. If you’re ambitious and want to braid then I applaud you.

As I scanned the internet to read about challah I did find one tidbit that interested me. Some folks add saffron to their challah. What a brilliant idea! Saffron will add just the right amount of subtle and mysterious character to challah, almost making the eggs “eggier.” My next challah will definitely have saffron.

As I mentioned, challah makes amazing French Toast, but you may get better results if you allow leftovers of this rich moist bread get about 24 hours of staleness under its belt before practicing your French.

Leftovers? Now that’s funny!

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Click here for the recipe for Challah.

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