Challah at Me

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.

Continue reading “Challah at Me”

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How Do You Like Them Apples?

Few fruits are more loaded with symbolism than the common, everyday apple. Johnny Appleseed planted the trees straight into early American culture, likely with little more than basic sustenance in mind, but their importance goes far deeper than those shallow roots. Well before that, the Greeks associated the apple with Aphrodite,
the goddess of Love. The Christian mythology of Adam and Eve is well known, ascribing both great and terrible wisdom to the humble apple, the catalyst for the creation of civilization as we know it.

Those are some pretty weighty claims for such a simple, sweet little morsel. While a bite of one perfectly crisp, tart Fuji can feel like a moment of temporary enlightenment, sweetness, and all the comforting, optimistic, uplifting sentiments that go with it, are my ultimate takeaway. Enjoying apples on Rosh Hashanah in hopes of assuring a sweet New Year ahead feels almost redundant, almost too obvious, but still too good to question.

Thick slices of freshly harvested apples, lavished with an golden drizzle of thick honey, always stood at attention on the festive dinner table, waiting for takers. Even when darker, more robust maple syrup was offered alongside, those pale slivers sat as little more than those iconic symbols. A nice thought, a hospitable offering of well wishes, but not an actual appetizer, or palate cleanser- And certainly not dessert.

Given the abundance of apples all across the globe and their rich tradition in almost all cultures, it’s hard to come up with a truly original treat for Rosh Hashanah. I still can’t claim to have done so, but the last thing I want to serve is another standard-issue apple pie or apple cobbler. While I wouldn’t turn up my nose at either given the chance to serve myself, there are simply more decadent things I crave… Like apple fritters.

Doughnuts are hit-and-miss affairs, only good for the first hour or so out of the vat of hot oil. Their texture declines exponentially with every passing minute after that, and don’t get me started about the logistics of making enough for a crowd. To satisfying this particular, powerful longing, it was straight to the oven for me.

Sweet yeasted dough, rich enough to pass for challah, swaddles tender chunks of lightly simmered and spiced apples, prepared just as it might be for your typical deep fried function. After the usual chopping and division, however, these pieces are reunited in one large cake pan and baked together, emerging from the oven as one grand, show-stopping dessert fit for a crowd.

To keep more closely with tradition, the torte could be just as easily finished with a drizzle of vegan honey, agave, or maple syrup, but a simple vanilla bean glaze takes it over the top for me, more closely echoing its original doughnut inspiration.

Read whatever deeper meaning that you may, but there’s no questioning one thing about this latest twist in the apple saga: These are symbols that are meant to be eaten. Prepare to go home with an empty pan after this particularly sweet holiday.

Apple Fritter Torte

Torte Dough:

2 1/2 – 3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Active Dry yeast
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
6 Tablespoons Warm Water
6 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted and Divided

Cinnamon-Apple Filling:

2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Large Fuji Apples, Peeled, Cored, and Diced
1 Teaspoon Tapioca Starch

Vanilla Bean Glaze:

1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Bean Paste or Extract
1 – 2 Tablespoons Water

In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the 2 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, yeast, aquafaba, lemon zest, and water. Beat on a medium speed for 5 – 8 minutes, until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and forms a soft, slightly sticky ball. Slowly add more flour, just a tablespoon at a time, to get it to a workable consistency. It should still be very tacky, and not as firm as bread dough. Allow the dough to rest for a minute.

Start the mixer again on low speed and slowly drizzle in 4 tablespoons of the melted butter, about a teaspoon at a time. Once fully incorporated incorporated, continue to knead with the hook attachment for about 5 minutes, until glossy, smooth, and elastic. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge overnight, or for at least 8 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the apple filling by heating the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Add the cinnamon and sugar, cooking until dissolved. Introduce the apples, reduce the heat to medium low, and gently simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes, stirring periodically, until fork-tender. Sprinkle the starch evenly over the mixture and quickly incorporate, whisking out any lumps. Cook just until slightly thickened and turn off the heat. Cool completely before using.

After the dough has properly rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it into a large rectangle. Don’t sweat the actual size; just aim for about 1/4-inch thickness. Spoon the apple filling down half, lengthwise, and fold over the dough, pinching the edges together to seal. Use a very sharp knife to cut the skinny rectangle into 1-inch strips, and then cut those strips diagonally. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry! I made a fancy diagram in Paint to help you out:

And yes, it will be an absolutely terrific mess.

Fear not! Gather up all the pieces and press them into a lightly-greased 9-inch round springform pan. Let rest and rise for 1 hour, and in the meantime, begin preheating your oven to 350 degrees.

Bake for 1 hour – 1 hour 15 minutes, until amber brown all over; just a shade darker than simply “golden.”

Prepare the glaze by whisking together all the ingredients, adding just enough water to reach your desired consistency.

Cool the torte for at least 25 minutes before serving, but don’t let it sit too long! It’s best served warm, with the vanilla bean glaze lavished on top just prior to slicing.

Makes 14 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe

Sweetness for a Bitter Holiday

Still frustrated about not finding many vegan sweets that my family can eat during Passover, I opt to help out and make one of the traditional dishes of the season, which actually happens to be vegan by default. (Again!)

Found at every traditional seder is Charoses, a food that is meant to sweeten the bitter tears (The salt water and bitter herb) that represent the pain of slavery. In this application it is eaten with matzoh, sometimes in addition to moror (Horseradish,) but it has many other tasty options. This depends on how you like yours, so I’ll get to that later.

Charoses is so simple, there isn’t even a written recipe in our house, so I’ll try to approximate measurements if you’re interested in trying it out for yourself. Don’t stress out, there’s nothing precise about it, and it only requires three things:

Apples, wine, and nuts.

First things first, peel and core three apples, preferably a sweeter variety like Fujis are ideal. Throw these into a wooden bowl, along with a good handful of nuts – Walnuts are traditional, but I find them a bit bitter… And besides, we already had pecans on hand, so I used those. Maybe start with 1/2 cup, and then depending on how your mixture looks you can add in more? It’s really up to you.

Now, mash those bad boys up real good! …But don’t massacre it! You’re looking for a chunky mixture, not a puree. That’s why I tend to use the hand-chopper, but if you’re just not into that or want to save time, you could probably get the same results from a food processor, as long as you kept an eye one it.

With the addition of about 1/2 cup of Manischewitz, (Or, I suppose you could substitute a sweetened grape juice if you don’t want to use alcohol) this is what mine looks like. By no means is this the only way it should come out. I’ve seen other people make theirs so smooth it’s more like applesauce! As something that smooth, it could make a tasty dip for unsalted crackers, or a spread for toast… Chunkier makes a great sandwich filling… and if you throw it under the broiler with some brown sugar, cinnamon, and crumbled matzoh, it makes for a warm and comforting dessert.

If you do try it, just play around with it! There are so many areas open to variation, and then the sky is the limit with what you can do with the end product.