Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.
Woven into the smooth, elastic strands of dough that compose a loaf of lovingly braided challah bread is a taste of history. Surviving centuries of strife, passed down by word of mouth like folklore, it’s more than mere sustenance, yet hardly given a second thought beyond the customary blessing, if that. Even I was surprised to learn that the term “challah” isn’t necessarily defined by the rich, eggy, soft, and sweet crumb that immediately comes to mind. Any bread that’s sanctified for Jewish observances, from high holidays to regular old week days, can be challah.
That’s only the beginning of my true challah education. Visiting the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley prior to Shabbat one day, I was greeted by the sight of overflowing bowls of dough, the smell of yeast and flour wafting through the windows, perfuming the whole neighborhood.
Traditionally, seven essential ingredients compose the tender crumb we all know and love: water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour, and salt. Eggs, though frequently included to represent renewal, are not actually a necessary staple. That’s right; I wandered into this enclave of busy bakers to find about a hundred pounds of “accidentally” vegan challah dough at my disposal.
As explained by den mamma Bracha Sara Leeds, all while deftly kneading and twisting strands of the soft dough into elaborate braids, each ingredient can be linked back to the tenants of Judaism itself.
Water, the single most important, omnipresent component, represents the Torah. Just as we cannot live without water, we also cannot live without this guiding scripture. Bringing life and nourishment to all, it represents generosity and kindness. Like water, we want kindness to be infinitely abundant, flowing freely through our lives.
Flour is sustenance, the foundation to build a life on, physically and emotionally through our relationships with family, friends, and the community at large. We must feed these relationships as we must feed ourselves to maintain a healthy, happy, stable existence.
Oil is included to represent anointing, or sanctifying, to signify this loaf as being special, holier than your average daily bread. Oil enriches our lives, making particular moments, or meals, a bit more special.
Sugar stands in for all the sweetness in our lives, of course, but in this case also represents faith. With faith (in the future, in ourselves) comes sweet rewards. Fear not the sugar! Though challah is certainly classified as a sweet bread, it’s always well-balanced, to be served with equal enjoyment with toppings as diverse as jam or hummus, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Yeast provides leavening, of course, allowing the dough to rise, grow, and expand. Whether that means growing in terms of our character, rising up above challenges, or expanding to reach our full potential, it only takes a small push to get started. Yeast is only a tiny piece of the recipe, yet completely transforms the finished loaves.
Salt, used sparingly but in fair measure, represents discipline or criticism. As difficult as it can be to accept, it’s necessary for contrast and proper perspective. Salt can also signify purification, removing toxins from the body, and anything that is toxic in our lives or minds.
Arguably the most ingredient is one absent from any written recipe. Patience, while kneading, waiting for the dough to rise once, rise twice, and again while baking, is indispensable. Have patience for yourself; don’t rush the process to reap the greatest rewards.
It’s my pleasure to share this simple, yet deeply nuanced, meaningful approach to challah for World Bread Day. As my 13th contribution to the effort, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Though I wish I could break bread in person with everyone in the blogosphere, I hope that sharing this little morsel of history might provide a bit of virtual nourishment, at least.
- 3 Cups All-Purpose Flour, Divided
- 2/3 Cup Water
- 1 (1/4 Ounce) Packet, or 2 3/4 Teaspoons Active Dry Yeast
- 1/3 Cup Melted Butter-Flavored Coconut Oil
- 1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
- 1 1/4 Teaspoons Salt
- Prepare the sponge first by combining 1/4 cup flour, 2 tablespoons water, and the yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer. Mix well and let stand for 15 minutes. It should become slightly bubbly.
- Add the remaining water along with the melted coconut oil, sugar, and salt. Beat thoroughly with the paddle attachment until everything is incorporated.
- Add the remaining flour and beat for about 3 minutes before switching over to the dough hook attachment. Continue to knead until cohesive and smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. It will be very sticky at first, so be patient. The whole process may take up to 10 minutes.
- Lightly grease a large bowl and place the ball of dough inside. Roll it around to coat it in oil and cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Stash in a warm, draft-free place and let rise until at least doubled in volume; about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
- Gently deflate the dough and divide it into either 3 or 6 strands, depending on the type of braid you want to make. Roll the pieces between your hands or on a lightly floured work surface into long snakes. If the dough begins to fight you and shrinks back as you roll, let it rest for about 10 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
- Braid the loaf. For helpful videos, see those by King Arthur Flour here or here.
- Transfer the completed braid to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet. Let rest for another 1 1/2 - 2 hours, until doubled in volume once more. As it nears readiness, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Bake for 30 - 40 minutes, until golden brown all over. Let cool completely before slicing and serving.
For a shiny glaze, brush the loaf generously with aquafaba before baking.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 145 Total Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 3g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 10mg Sodium: 197mg Carbohydrates: 22g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 4g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 3g