As a child, I distinctly remember the satisfaction I felt-- and the jealousy I inspired in other children-- when I told them that I celebrated both Christmas and Hannukah. Twice the presents. Twice the celebrations. Twice the holiday cheer. The reason for this is fairly simple: my mother was raised Anglican and my father is Jewish. Overwhelmingly Christian-- culturally, if not religiously-- the majority of my classmates and friends were unfamiliar with Jewish customs, holidays, or (most importantly!) food. Admittedly, I was and still am fairly unfamiliar with most aspects of Judaism, Hannukah and Passover being the only two holidays my family has consistently observed. But I had an appreciation of the food passed down from my father's Russian Ashkenazi family. Latkes, matzo ball soup, farfel pudding, charoset. Challah. These were foods from the comfort-cuisines of Eastern Europe, and I associated them with festive spirit and special meals. Candlelight. Laughter. Family. Quite simply, all the things holidays should be about.
I am not Jewish. Neither under Jewish law (because my mother is not Jewish) nor through observance or personal identification. I am not a religious person and would not feel justified in claiming a religious identity. Jewish culture, however, is something that I believe has played a role in my life and in shaping who I am. However inauthentic and limited it might have been, my experience of "being Jewish" is inextricably linked to my experiences of family and of food. As I see it, many Jewish holidays draw on the power of food and the collective meal as part of sharing the stories and collective history of the Jewish people. Specific foods and eating customs have symbolic significance, uniting the practices of Jews across national, ethnic, and linguistic lines. On the one hand, the springtime holiday of Passover is centered entirely around a long ritualistic meal, throughout which the story of Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people is retold. On the other hand, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement signifying the end of the year, entails complete fasting so that the individual may wholly focus on God.
To me, in my occasional experiences of Jewish custom and throughout life, food is a focal point for coming together with family and friends. Through cooking and eating together we cherish ourselves and one another, our bodies and our souls. There is something tender and loving in even the simplest of meals, served and eaten in the right frame of mind.
My own family never made a habit of baking challah, a slightly sweet, moist braided bread often eaten on the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. On Shabbat, we would often have a store bought loaf with our meal, gobbling up the scrumptious bread in large, fragrant chunks. Although the bread was always store-bought, I find that baking challah is still very evocative of family food experiences. The honey, yeasty aroma of the baking bread smells very homely and safe, comforting when most of my family is thousands of miles away.
In addition to being a cultural, familial, and therapeutic experience, baking this challah was also my first time baking any kind of bread! Whoot! Apart from pizzas and flat-bread, that is. But I don't feel they count. As I imagine most bread-making to be, this was a fairly lengthy process-- mostly spent in waiting-- and involved quite a bit of kneading. The dough was much softer and fluffier than I had expected, though, and the kneading was very little effort. It was so soft and squidgy, in fact, that I spent an unnecessary amount of time just poking the lump of dough, fascinated and very tempted to giggle at the strangely pleasant texture. I might even have forced other people to poke it. Possibly.
This was a first attempt so it was by no means perfect. The dough was a little sweeter than I would have liked, I'll probably decrease the honey next time. Also, both loaves burst a little near their bases while baking. Oops. Guess I'll knead a little more thoroughly next time! But, overall, the results were moist, fragrant, and delicious while still warm from the oven. I consumed several slices slathered in honey, butter, or raspberry jam, a big, satisfied grin on my face. This recipe is a great base for tweaking, adjusting the flavoring and adding extra little goodies (dried fruit, herbs, spices... the possibilities are endless!) At the risk of being too smug, as a first go at bread-making, I'd have to say "not bad!"
adapted from a recipe on allrecipes.com
1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 cup honey (use a little less if you want your challah less sweet)
2 1/4 teaspoons dried active yeast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 additional egg
Yields two medium-sized loaves.
In a large bowl, mix together the water, honey, and yeast and allow to rest until frothy. This means that the yeast has activated. Mine took about 20 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the salt and flour and set aside.
Add the vegetable oil and eggs to the yeast mixture, blending thoroughly.
Now begin adding the flour/salt mixture to the wet ingredients, about a cupful at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. As you add the flour, the dough should eventually lose enough of its stickiness that you can knead it (though you might have to add more flour before you get to this stage!) Once the dough is workable, turn it out onto a floured surface and begin kneading, adding more flour as kneaded to keep it from sticking to your hands or the surface. Knead until the dough is smooth (a few minutes) and then leave it to rise for 1 1/2 hours (until it has doubled in size) in a lightly floured bowl, covered with a damp cloth.
Once the dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and knead it again on a floured surface. Because I made two smallish loaves, I divided the dough in half and kneaded each half separately. You could, instead, make one large loaf and knead the whole lump together.
After 2-5 minutes of kneading (with liberal applications of flour as needed!) the dough should be ready to braid. Divide each chunk into thirds and roll the thirds out into thick ropes, about 1 1/2 inches thick. Firmly pinch the three ropes together at one end and gently braid them together, the way you would hair. Weird, chunky, abnormal hair. Try not to pull the dough logs as you're braiding them, simply drape them over one another. You want them to puff up and maintain their distinct shapes when you bake them so that the braid shape is still apparent. When I got to the ends of each braid, I tucked the ends underneath to round off the end of the loaf.
Transfer the loaves to a greased baking tray (if you're making one large loaf, it might be a bit unwieldy so you can braid it directly on the baking tray, avoiding potential challah disasters!) Brush the loaves with an egg wash, simply beat the additional egg until whites and yolk are combined and then lightly brush it on your loaves, using a pastry brush or your fingertips. This will give the challah a pretty shine when they bake.
Bake in a preheated oven at 190 C (375 F) for about 40 minutes. After the first 20 minutes, cover them with foil to prevent them getting too brown.
After they've baked, remove the loaves to a cooling rack allow them to cool for at least an hour before cutting them (so, so hard, believe me!)