Monday, December 13, 2010

Frugal and Spiritual: Homemade Challah (Or: "Kansas City Challah")

Baking Challah is one of my favorite parts about being Jewish.  You can buy challah (to the tune of $5 a loaf, oy!!) but this mitzvah is so close to my heart that both my frugal and my spiritual selves really benefit from the weekly schvitz of baking it every week.

Challah is about delicious bread, to be sure.  I love Deb's description of what it smells like when it's baking.  But lots of bread is delicious.  Challah is special.

Lots of people don't know that "challah" is actually the word for the portion that was set aside for the Temple priests thousands of years ago (check out Numbers 15.)  Before baking, Jews still remove a portion of the dough and either burn it or dispose of it in remembrance of that time.  

Taking the challah is actually the spiritual heart of baking this awesome Shabbat bread, for a couple of reasons. Taking a portion of the dough before braiding and baking reminds us that everything we have really belongs to HaShem.  Not only that, but it is our responsibility to use the blessings HaShem gives us, an abundance of food being among them, to help others, just as our ancestors set aside a portion for the priests so long ago.

Over time, Jews have become connected to the moment when challah is taken as one of a handful of times when we are especially close to HaShem, when the gates of heaven are open to our prayers.  I am one who takes this especially to heart.  Even if we are not expecting guests, I bake challah every week.  I feel connected to HaShem, but also to other Jewish bakers all around the world who are doing the same thing and seeking the same connection that I am.

Challah is a braided bread to ensure that it is technically at least two loaves in one, to represent the double portion (lechem mishneh) of manna that HaShem provided to the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 16) - another story to remind us that HaShem always provides for our needs. Different bakers use different braids.  I use a five-strand braid (YouTube Link) - a strand for each Kopans in the Kopans Bayit.  For me, this is a recognition of how lucky we are to have five in our family, and a prayer that each one of us will be provided for and taken care of.  
It is literally baking with love. 

For all these reasons, my challah baking is very important to me.  You can imagine my horror when we moved from Ohio to Kansas City and suddenly my tried-and-true challah recipe didn't work.  It was too wet, and adding more flour made it crumbly.  I couldn't for the life of me figure out the right balance.

Mara gave us her incredible recipe, but David likes his challah more eggy than sweet (actually, he doesn't like it sweet at all.)  So each week I tried a different tweak. It took nearly four months (!!!) but I finally recovered the Kopans challah recipe to work in Kansas City.

I'll be making more posts on how to make challah baking extra fun for kids (funfetti challah, anyone?) but for now here is our challah recipe from Middle America.  

Kopans' in Kansas City Challah Recipe:
1 1/4 c water
3 eggs
3 tbsp honey
1/2 c vegetable oil
6 c flour
2 1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp instant yeast

Knead all ingredients together until smooth and allow a first rise, until nearly doubled in bulk:
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Turn out onto a floured surface and separate into sections for braiding:
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Roll into strands, the middle thicker than the ends, for braiding:
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Braid and allow a second rise under saran wrap on baking sheets.  The second rise should be no longer than 45 minutes.
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Wash with beaten whole egg and bake at 350 degrees for 28 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees.  Cool on a cooling rack:
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If you live in Kansas City, stop by the Kopans Bayit some Shabbos to grab a bite.  Shabbat Shalom!
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ETA: This post was contributed to Mara's challah recipe swap over at Kosher on a Budget.  You MUST go visit!

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