Joshua Weisberg’s Challah
Written By Linda L. Esterson
During his second year at Cornell University, Joshua Weisberg lived in a vegetarian co-op with 25 other people. Each was required to cook a meal once a month. That’s when he first learned to make challah.
Nearly 20 years later, Weisberg is still making the ritual bread. Over the years, he has adapted his recipe. These days, instead of a three-hour ordeal, it only takes him a quick 60 minutes.
Today, the 37-year-old veterinarian lives on a Parkton farm and uses eggs from his own chickens when making his challah. He sometimes replaces sugar with honey that was harvested from his bees.
Prior to Shabbat three or four Fridays each month, Weisberg is found in his kitchen, baking the bread with his three oldest children — Nadav, 6, Shai, 4, and Eitan, 2.
“It always comes out better when the kids are helping,” he says.
On Shabbat, Weisberg and his wife, Rivka, pair the bread with different entrees like curry, French onion or honey mustard chicken, or salmon or tilapia with pesto sauce. But it’s just as good by itself.
“It goes really well with margarine and honey,” he says.
From time to time, he’ll modify the recipe, substituting whole wheat flour for white flour and adding raisins or craisins for extra sweetness. Instead of braiding, he makes round challahs for Rosh Hashanah.
Challah has been part of the Jewish tradition since the Middle Ages. According to food expert Joan Nathan, author of 10 cookbooks including the recently published “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), pain pétri (kneaded bread) is derived from the days when Moroccan women kneaded and formed the bread at home and baked the loaves in public ovens. Even in the late Middle Ages, when bakers sold bread for public consumption, Jewish women continued to make it themselves as one of the three mitzvot that women perform for Shabbat. The other two are lighting candles and going to the mikvah, the ritual bath.
On Shabbat, two loaves of bread are served, representing the double portion of manna the Jews gathered on the night before Shabbat during the 40 days of wandering in the wilderness. Manna was gathered each day because it spoiled overnight, except on the eve of Shabbat.
According to “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York” by Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), the name “challah” is derived from the Hebrew word used for “portion” in the Biblical commandment “of the first of your dough you shall give unto the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations.” Roden explains that in the Bible, Jews were commanded to separate 1/24 of their dough and give it to the kohanim (priests) every Shabbat.
In post-Temple times the rabbis directed that a portion the size of an olive must be separated from the dough and burned. Today, it remains tradition for Jewish bakers and observant housewives to tear a tiny piece of baked dough from any type of bread and to “burn” it (usually wrapped in foil) in the oven or fire while making a blessing.
Making challah is easy, says Nathan, who learned to make the ritual bread while living in Jerusalem in the 1970s. “It takes as much time to go to the store.”
Joshua Weisberg’s Challah
1 Tbsp salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (separate 1 cup)
2 packets Rapid Rise yeast
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups warm water
1/2 cup warm vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 small egg
1. Mix salt, 5 1/2 cups flour, Rapid Rise yeast and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix warm water and vegetable oil. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well.
2. Beat large eggs with a fork and add to the dough. Mix well. Knead for a few minutes, adding up to a cup more flour, until the mixture holds its shape and is no longer very sticky.
3. Turn the oven on to the warm setting. Once it is warm, turn the oven off and keep it closed. Grease a large baking sheet with vegetable oil. Allow the dough to sit for 10 to 15 minutes while the oven warms.
4. After the dough sits, divide it into six balls. Roll each ball into 12-inch-long cords, using a little flour on your hands or the cooking surface to keep it from sticking. Use three cords to braid each challah, resulting in two challahs. After braiding the challahs, place them on the greased baking sheet. Put them in the warm oven and allow to rise for 30 to 45 minutes. After the challahs have risen, beat a small egg and paint the egg over the surface of the challahs. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.
Note: You can substitute a cup of wheat flour for a cup of white flour and still get excellent results. You can also substitute honey for sugar in equal measures. For the High Holidays, add about a cup of raisins (or craisins) after adding the eggs and before kneading.
Joan Nathan’s Pain Pétri
(Moroccan Anise-Flavored Challah With Sesame Seeds)
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
8 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 heaping teaspoons anise seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds
YIELD: 4 CHALLAHS
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Put the yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer equipped with a dough hook, and pour in 2 cups lukewarm water. Stir, and when the yeast is dissolved, whisk in the two whole eggs, then add the oil. Add 7 cups of the flour, the salt, sugar, and anise seeds to the bowl, and knead with the electric mixer until smooth and elastic, adding more flour as necessary. Form into a round loaf, and poke a 1-inch hole all the way through the center. Let the dough rest, uncovered on a floured board, for about 10 minutes. Divide the dough into four pieces, using a knife or a dough cutter. Flour the board and your hands, and roll each piece of dough into a long cylinder, about 20 inches long. With the palms of your hands, flatten the cylinder, then roll it into a long rope, about 2 feet long, making sure that there are no seams in the dough. Then bring the two ends next to each other and twist to form a loose spiral. Place on one of two lined baking sheets. Do this with the other three pieces of dough, two to a baking sheet. Beat the two egg yolks in a bowl, and add about a tablespoon of water. Stir well, and brush the egg glaze over the loaves. Then sprinkle the sesame seeds on top. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees, and bake for another 30 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped.