A Tale of Two Challahs

Sweet challah to usher in the Jewish new year

Sweet challah to usher in the Jewish new year

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….”*

This well-known beginning of the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities struck a chord with me recently. A chord that ran directly to my cooking. The words aptly describe me in the kitchen: my learning process, my passion, my frustration, the good and not-so-good and the fearless and the uncertain. The quote popped into my head while I was making a grocery list for our family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner.

As with most holidays, I try to make something new each time. This year, to up the fearless factor, I decided to make challah. This classic braided Jewish egg bread is one of the stars of Rosh Hashanah dinner tables. There are many beliefs about what challah signifies, among them completeness, infinity, a year of blessings, and the circle of life. Only at the new year, challahs are round and should be sweeter than those eaten at other times.

I did some research and came up with a few recipes that looked great and didn’t seem overly complicated (for me). The first one I tried was from food writer Melissa Clark (http://www.melissaclark.net/blog/2012/09/challah-1.html).

One of the things I like about Melissa’s recipes is that her directions are very clear and easy to follow. Even better for a challah-baking novice like me, she included lots of photos of the braiding technique. As I worked my way through the recipe, I felt good about this challenge. But as I finished braiding, it was obvious that the braids didn’t look quite like hers; about half of the braids looked right, but the others weren’t nearly as tightly woven. I’m not sure what went wrong. Did the dough have the right elasticity? Did it rest enough? It definitely doubled in size and felt pliable when I was making the braids.

As the loaf temperature neared 190˚, the sweet aroma was making its way through my kitchen. When the thermometer beeped, I pulled it out of the oven and did a quick inspection. Completely baked – check. (The bread should “sound” hollow when gently tapped on the bottom). Shiny, golden color – check. Uniform braids all around – not so much. While I knew my challah didn’t look like Melissa’s braided beauty, I felt confident that the flavor would be there.

Impatience got the better of me and I tore off a piece before it completely cooled. Ahhh, redemption. What it lacked in roundness and consistent braids on the outside, it more than made up for in flavor and texture. Sweet, but not too sweet, and had a soft yellow hue on the inside and the crust seemed firm but not hard.

Here’s my version of Melissa’s recipe:

If at first you don't succeed: the braids need some refinement

If, at first, you don’t succeed: the braids need some refinement

Having one challah under my belt, I was determined to make another, a completely different recipe, to see if I could get better results. I came across this recipe by Jessamyn Waldman on Food & Wine magazine’s website (http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/jessamyns-sephardic-challah). One of the first things that caught my eye was that the dough was coiled rather than braided. And this recipe called for bread flour, not AP flour, and yielded two loaves.

Like Melissa’s recipe, this one also posed challenges for me. During the first rise time, when the dough was supposed to double, it barely rose (my first cause for concern). Then, during the second rise, it happened again – no rise. Ugh. Was the kitchen too humid? Was there a difference because of the bread flour instead of AP flour? I expected the bread to be small and dense. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Both rose a little bit as they baked, and looked beautiful. For me, it was much easier to roll and coil the dough.

The "coiled" technique worked much better

The “coiled” technique worked much better

I served both challahs, and surveyed everyone. The vote was split equally on flavor, but it was a clean sweep on the shape. As you saw above, the braids in Melissa’s recipe didn’t really look like braids, but my version of Jessamyn’s challah looked very much like a coiled round loaf. So, while each challah had its challenges, it certainly didn’t stop us from eating every last crumb.

If you’re so inclined, please drop me a note with any suggestions or comments about baking challahs, the differences between using AP flour and bread flour, or reasons why the doughs may not rise.

* excerpted from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

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