Challah is Jewish Sabbath bread. Of the various stories I have heard about its Jewish meanings, the one I like best says that challah, with its distinctive braided shape, reminds us that on Fridays the God of Israel faithfully provided for His Chosen a double portion of manna in the wilderness, so that there was no need to gather food on the Sabbath.
I have collected odd bits of knowledge about challah not just because a course in World Religions is part of my teaching portfolio, but more because I looked for ways to ritualize the Friday night meal in my house in ways that echoed what my parents did. In the home they so richly and lovingly provided for my growing up, Friday night always meant potatoes and beans. The potatoes I liked well enough, but not the beans—still don’t. I learned a story in my adulthood, however, that put those beans in perspective.
My father, 18 years old in 1931, and his mother, abandoned three years before by an abusive father and husband, found themselves destitute and unemployed in the weeks before Christmas in Fort Morgan, Colo. They subsisted—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—for two weeks on broken pieces of pinto beans supplied them by acquaintances who had jobs in the local bean packing plant. I have come to believe that my dad’s Friday-night ritual meal of beans and potatoes was his peculiar memorial to God’s faithful providence that allowed him to survive and eventually to flourish after such privation.
As a child of the middle-class privilege that my parents’ hard work and good fortune provided for me, I have no such dramatic stories as my dad did, but as I reared my own children I still sought some special food that would mark the coming of Sabbath in my household. My wife and I tried a variety of things. For a while it seemed a 9-by-9-inch pan of cornbread was going to be the ticket. But then I discovered a recipe for challah, tried it out on the kids, and found that it “took hold” with them.
Whatever else we ate on Friday night, challah and “wine” (upscale varietal grape juice sometimes, Martinelli’s sparkling apple juices more commonly) became the center of our feast. When my sons were away at Monterey Bay Academy and I would visit them on the weekends, loaves of challah would come with me and we would break bread together in their dorm rooms. As they moved through college, Friday nights with challah at the Schneiders made them and their friends feel special and welcomed.
As my sons have moved on to other locations and concerns, challah has become a means of ceremonial welcome and celebration for groups of students who come to my home. I take special pleasure in the successive cohorts of leaders of the Pacific Union College chapter of Amnesty International, for which I am faculty sponsor. These developing citizens of the world humor me as I lead them into a liturgical responsive reading before the Friday night meal, a reading that sounds the biblical themes of liberty to the captives, a Sabbath and a Jubilee for all, given to us by the God who brought his people up out of the land of slavery and into the land of promise—and along the way gave them a double portion of their daily bread on Friday night. Then we fall upon the challah and the Martinelli’s, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good to us, blessing our bodies and spirits. Around my household table, as around my father’s and mother’s and grandmother’s before me, we partake of the grace that redeems the world.
Greg Schneider is a professor of religion and social science at Pacific Union College. Photo credit: Greg Schneider
This week’s recipe for Challah and Orange Juice and Cranberry Challah come from Greg Schneider. He writes, “These two recipes are my tweaks on what I found in a manual for our first bread machine back in the 1990s. The bread machine is long gone; the recipes remain.” Schneider adds, “I recognize the lack of nutritional virtue here. No one should make these breads their ‘daily bread.’ They remain good for celebrations.”
Challah Makes: 1 loaf Total prep time: 3 hours, 15 minutes Active prep time: 1 hour
Ingredients ¾ -1 cup milk 2 large eggs 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive or canola oil 3 tablespoons honey ½ tablespoon salt 3½ - 5 cups all-purpose flour (however much is necessary to create a good dough ball—one that pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl, but remains a bit sticky) 2-3 teaspoons active dry yeast, proofed (*see Notes) 1 egg white, slightly beaten, or equivalent amount Egg Beaters
1. Mix and then knead together all ingredients except the egg white with the dough hooks of a strong kitchen mixer. Kneading should continue until dough is smooth, relatively shiny, and pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl, with no dry flour hanging around the edges of the dough ball.
2. Turn the dough ball into an oiled metal mixing bowl big enough to accommodate a doubling in size. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth, and place the bowl in a warm place. (An oven heated for a minute or two and then shut off does nicely).
3. Let the dough rise for about an hour. You can cut this time down to about 45 min. if you use warmed milk and eggs in the original mixing and kneading.
4. After the dough ball has about doubled in size, turn it out onto a floured Teflon baking parchment laid on a cookie sheet. Punch the dough ball down, shape it into an oblong form, and cut it into three equal portions. Use a kitchen scale to even out the three lumps, if you wish. Each should be about 12-15 oz.
5. Rubbing each smaller lump between your hands, pulling, squeezing, etc., form them into long strands of equal length.
6. Lay them side by side on the baking sheet, and braid them. Start in the middle and braid to one end, squeezing the ends together. Then braid from the middle to the other end, again squeezing the ends together.
7. Cover the braided dough with a clinging plastic wrap and then a damp dish towel. Place in the warmed oven for the second rise (about 45 min.).
8. After the second rise, remove the dough and start to heat up the oven to 325 degrees (or slightly less, depending your oven). While the oven is heating, brush the dough with a slightly beaten egg white, using a pastry brush, to create a glazed finish. (Actually, any egg substitute, like Egg Beaters, will also do the trick; they are mostly egg whites anyway).
9. When the oven is ready, bake the loaf for about 30 minutes.
Orange Juice and Cranberry Challah Makes: 1 loaf Total prep time: 3 hours, 15 minutes Active prep time: 1 hour
Juice and pulp of 1 large orange, freshly squeezed (about ½ cup)
½ cup milk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive or canola oil
3 tablespoons honey
½ tablespoon salt
1½ cups dried, sweetened cranberries, moistened (**see Notes)
3½ - 5 cups flour (however much is necessary to create a good dough ball—one that pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl, but remains a bit sticky)
3 teaspoons active dry yeast, proofed (*see Notes)
1 more teaspoon of dry yeast (the extra yeast is necessary because the acid from the orange juice is hard on yeast)
Treat in the same manner as the described above, except:
At the end of step 1, add the moistened dried cranberries and extra teaspoon of dry, unproofed yeast to the kneaded dough ball, adding enough flour to keep the ball from becoming excessively sticky.
In step 9, bake at least 30 minutes, at a slightly lower temperature, as falling due to inadequate baking is a greater hazard with this variation.
* To proof: In a 1-cup measuring cup, dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in about ¼ cup warm water and sprinkle the yeast in, pushing down what sticks to the sides of the 1-cup measure in which you do this. Wait until yeast bubbles.
**To moisten: Soak the cranberries in hot water, until plump, then discard the water before using.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5453