Here’s my rule: if you can’t holla ’bout challah, there’s somethin’ wrong with you. Challah, when it is made well, great bread. I’ve always been a huge fan of it, but sadly I haven’t had it in a very long time (even if I could find it here in Missouri — and to be honest I’ve never seen it — I wouldn’t waste my money buying it). It’s not just Missouri, though – it’s just hard to find it outside of certain places. I don’t remember seeing challah much when I lived in Northeast Connecticut either. Already, I suspect, I was too far out of NYC (second largest Jewish population on the planet) to find it readily available. Basically, two hours from NYC and already I might as well have been on the other side of the challah-eating universe. So it’s not surprising that you don’t find it out here, where the Jewish population density is probably 1 person per 200 miles.
So I was naturally excited to bake this. However, I was a bit apprehensive about making it. After all, how was I supposed to reproduce such a great bread off the cuff? Gladly, I’m actually shocked to report, this recipe turned out awesome. I mean, I realize I’m not Jewish and all, so in the end – really – what do I know? Still, I can say that I grew up in a neighborhood with amazing Jewish bakeries, so I can honestly say that I know what it is supposed to taste like. And this loaf of challah comes damn close to what I remember it tasting like. Seriously, I had some flashbacks to the days of my youth ripping into these loaves like a ravenous dog. In fact I had to stop myself from continually cutting into the loaf to eat more and more of it.
Basically, I’m hollerin’.
Unfortunately, I don’t think my wife holla’d much. As most of you know, she grew up in southern Arkansas, where the Jewish density is probably even more sparse: 1 Jewish person per 600 miles. So I don’t think my wife had ever eaten challah before I made it. When I realized this, I felt a bit bad for her. I mean, this stuff is great! It also made me remember that when I was a kid, I think I just assumed that everyone had authentic Italian, Jewish, and _fill in the blank_ eateries around them. It was just normal for me to have all this crazy food diversity all over. I’m sure there are great things about growing up in Arkansas, but food diversity ain’t one of them (unless you could lots of different ways to make Southern dishes), unfortunately. Since challah really is a different type of bread, with a very idiosyncratic taste, I think it might take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never had it. The kids seemed to like it, though. The five year old even said that since I had “taken my head out of the cookbook” the day before, she would suspend her “Daddy’s food” boycott and eat a slice.
Challah isn’t terribly tough to make, but at the same time, I found the shaping aspect of it a bit challenging. So for the first time I’m going to raise up the difficulty on this bread up to intermediate, though I’d say that it is a ‘weak’ intermediate, or ‘intermediate minus’. Now, mind you, insofar as taste is concerned, there’s nothing to fear. It’s an easy recipe to make so it will taste just fine. However, in my opinion, aesthetics do count in a good loaf of bread. In fact, I think that my challah bread looked pretty cool at the end, but to be honest, I know it doesn’t look the way it is supposed to (look at the way the center of the braids “busted out”). So I’m pretty sure that a Jewish person raised on proper challah would likely say that my loaf looked all jacked up and so wasn’t worth eating. That’d be fair enough – if I’d seen my particular loaf in the Jewish bakery, I probably would not have bought it myself.
But heck, this is as it should be – it takes time and practice to get a recipe and its instructions correct. As I comment below, though, you’ll find me once again taking Reinhart to the carpet a bit on his instructions regarding shaping. I think he makes a small mistake in his wording, but it’s significant enough problem I think. I’ll explain when I get down to that section.
Comments on the Process
Challah has the two steps - (a) dough/shape, and (b) bake. As I noted, it’s the shaping process that causes some issues here. Everything else is not a problem.
Step One – Dough and Shape
As you may have noticed – and to be honest, I was a bit surprised – there’s no sponge, biga or poolish for a challah bread. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever made a bread that didn’t have one, so the absence of one for this bread made me think over what the function of the sponge/biga is. I suppose it is for heartier flavor, since the longer you leave the sponge/biga sitting around, the more you wind up with a sour-dough robust taste in your bread. Knowing challah bread, and it’s subtlety, I can see why you don’t want that. Challah is a very mild bread and has no real ‘attack’ flavor at all. It’s subtle, and needs to remain that way (it’s part of its charm, I think). Since you’re aiming for a smooth tasting bread, no sponge/biga is needed.
Although the mixing process for me is usually pretty easy and straightforward, this time I found that Reinhart’s recipe (for me anyway) was off way more than usual. He said that you should be able to get to a soft but not sticky dough in 18 oz of flour, but I needed about 22 oz (I’m going to start calling undershooting the amount of required flour “getting Reinharted” or “pulling a Reinhart”). I didn’t think I’d have to go that far over, but I did, and it was absolutely necessary to do so. Not sure why. In fact, even at 22 oz, it was still a bit sticky, and small amounts of dough still stuck to the side of the bowl (as you can see in the shot below). Typically the dough sticking to the bowl comes off during the final dough-hook stage and the bowl is clean.
After the first rise in the bowl (which is formed into a boule) Reinhart has you degass the dough it and boule shape it again, to let it rise yet again. Here you see it at the end of that process:
Once that’s done, you divide the dough into three pieces (for the three strands) and form little mini-boules, letting them then sit for a little bit to allow the gluten inside to relax. In retrospect, I’m not sure about this stage, and I think I would make alterations the next time. I had such issues getting the ropes to form that this final bouling stage makes little sense. Why not just form the ropes right after f the second rise? This extra shaping, seems to me, made the roping stage harder.
Which brings us to the problem stage. I had a lot of problems here in the roping/braiding. It’s not that I don’t know how to rope dough – I’ve done it making gnocchi many times before. So I’m aware of how to do it with my hands. But I’ve never tried it with a bread dough. Let me tell you – it ain’t that easy to do. It doesn’t want to elongate, as the gluten strands pull against the shaping. If you read the book, Reinhart says to just “rope” the dough.
Rope it my butt!
There should, in my opinion, be some extra explanation on how this will need to be done. What I found myself doing was a lot of stretching and pulling of the dough as opposed to literal roping in the way you’d rope dough for gnocchi. Moreover, my ropes didn’t look as neat as his (look below – you can literally see the results of my stretching). So it would be nice to know a bit more about how this part is done correctly.
The actually braiding process itself wasn’t so bad – easy, actually, but I think my problem here was that I was unaware of how tight to pull the braid. In my final product, the middle top of the loaf really sort of exploded up, pushing the egg-washed and seed covered part of the bread out to the sides. Real challah loaves don’t do that. So is it an issue of pulling it tighter? I’m not sure, and Reinhart doesn’t really say. Here’s a shot of mine, half-braided…
…and here’s another shot, fully braided.
Basically, this part of the recipe needs some extra splainin’. If Reinhart could just get clearer on the roping/shaping process, so that the loaves come out looking right, I think this recipe would be just fine. As it is, I’ll just have to experiment to get it right.
Step Two – Baking
Comments on the Final Product
I’m still hollerin’ as I write this post!
This loaf came out great. It really did touch on some old memories of growing up and ripping into loaves of challah made by some amazing local bakers. I was suprised that it came out so well, to be honest. I thought it would be harder to get right. I was also happy to make a loaf finally that didn’t have mounds of fat in it — which means that challah gets a “is virtuous” (read: not requiring a total rejection of temperance) label. Okay, this loaf has four eggs in it, but that’s really the main tweaking of the bread dough, other than the extra added sugar. Thankfully there’s no butter in it.
As I’ve said above, the great thing about challah, to me, is its subtleness and also its crust. The eggs inside are not overwhelming at all. You taste the egg, but it’s just present. The crumb and crust on challah are its signature features – and here they were awesome. The crumb had nice holes, and was very, very light, as it should be. The best part, however — just as I remembered it from my youth — was the crust. Very flaky and the egg wash (in addition to the sesame) does a great job of adding not just texture but taste as well.
Here are some shots of the product:
Here’s the whole loaf from the front with a slice cut off:
I was so impressed by the crumb on this bread that I kept taking pictures of it. This picture doesn’t do great justice to it, but you can see the holes. Man, this crust was light, too!
Here’s another close up of the same slice -
Challah is such a beautiful bread in so many ways – even when you screw up the general look of it – that you can’t help but to admire the egg washed gluten strands.
Here’s a side shot
And here’s a shot of a sandwich I made with the bread. Yes, those are potato chips inside the sandwich. I also put fries on my burgers. Hey, it’s my vice.
Will I make challah again? Are you kidding? I’m still hollerin’!
Next Week’s Challenge: Ciabatta
Oops – update. I had originally said that next week was Cinnamon Buns. That’s in two weeks. Next week is ciabatta, the no-knead Italian Bread. Quite different from the non-virtuous Cinnamon Buns thhat I’m not all that fired up to make, I am fired up about the ciabatta. Many moons ago I tried it numerous times and failed miserably each time. Hopefully I’ve learned enough since then to take on this challenge and defeat it.
See you next week!