Please ignore the vaguely cheesy and extremely predictable title of this post. When I was in summer camp, “Challah back!” was our bunk’s favorite thing to say. I even have a pair of sweatpants from that year with the phrase stamped across the butt. No, we were not creative, since every other young Jew who had ever heard the “Holla Back Youngin” song totally had the same joke, but we thought we were cool anyway.
One of my secret-not-so-secret, probably lofty, and potentially unrealistic dreams for my future is to bake challah for my family every Shabbat. This braided loaf is traditional at any holiday meal, and on Shabbat it is customary to serve two, as a reference to the two layers of manna which rained on the Jews who wandered in the desert for forty years after the exodus from Egypt.
I’ve baked challah a handful of times before: at camp, with youth group, with my family at various occasions. But like all the traditional holiday recipes, I’m realizing I’ve never done it myself at home. I’ve dabbled in yeast breads before, and I’ve discovered an exuberant love for rising dough. I have experienced fewer joyful moments in my life of baking than when I check my dough after letting it proof, only to find that it has indeed risen to twice the size it was when I put it out to sit in the first place.
For this first foray into creating this Jewish standard, I used this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. When I choose to undertake a project such as this, I will usually practice using a few different recipes until I’ve learned the basic nuances, and then create my own recipe using what I’ve learned. Since this is my first time baking challah by myself, I opted to follow this recipe to the letter. What I found was that there was too much flour – the dough didn’t absorb it all, so I think I would cut down the recipe by about one cup. I used half all purpose, half whole wheat flour, and made one raisin loaf and one plain sesame loaf.
Baking these made my entire house smell DIVINE.
The other integral aspect of baking a Kosher challah appropriate for a holiday meal is known as hafrashat challah. Before baking, a small pinch of dough is removed from the loaf and baked alongside the loaf, but never eaten (usually discarded, these days). This removed piece is a symbolic act, representative of a tithe to the Kohanim, the high priests, of the Holy Temple in Biblical times. Essentially, the act is a reminder that, as Jews, we are responsible for contributing to the whole of the Jewish community (and, in my eyes, to the entire world). You’ll notice in the pictures that I removed a pinch from each loaf, even though the two loaves were shaped from the same batch of dough.
Challah is eaten at the start of the holiday meal. Before we eat it, we first say a blessing over the wine, and while this blessing is being said, the challah is left covered, hidden, as a symbolic and ritual tradition indicating a preservation of the priority of the wine ritual and so as not to “embarrass” the challah for coming second in the hierarchy of prayer. True story. I told this story much more eloquently when I was a child, though.
The blessing over the challah goes as follows: Baruch atah adonai elohenu melekh haolam, ha motzi lekhem min ha-aretz. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth”
This is the challah plate my mother made one year when she worked at my summer camp (while I was off swimming and playing with guinea pigs). We have a matching set of Shabbat ritual dishes she made that year, and this is one of them. I haven’t told her this yet, but I fully intend to keep them and one day pass them along to my children.
In Hebrew, the plate is inscribed with “Shabbat Shalom,” the traditional Shabbat greeting wishing the recipient a peaceful Shabbat.
This is the challah cover used by my family by many years. We have a vast collection of such paraphernalia, but this one seems to be the default. I’m pretty sure most Jewish homes have one similar. Ours is embroidered with Hebrew that reads L’Kavod Shabbat v’Yom Tov, “To honor Shabbat and Holy Days.”
Oh, and as is customary (for me) I burned my thumb on the cookie sheet and will be spending this Shabbat with a bottle of aloe. And you can for sure bet on challah French toast in the very near future.
So Shabbat Shalom! And to anyone out there who isn’t Jewish – when I say that, what I really mean is, I truly hope you find some time for peace in your heart, mind, and home this weekend.