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Shabbat Meals: For the Love of Challah!

My parents grew up in Israel, but they immigrated to the United States in their late teens and had me when they were 20. So they have spent most of their adult lives here and raised me and my two sisters in a place very different than the 1960s Israel where they were brought up (their families lived a few blocks from each other in a suburb of Tel Aviv and my father and mother first met at age 14 in the neighborhood pool).

One of the biggest adjustments for them when I was born was figuring out how to pass on Jewishness. It was never something they had thought about before. They both came from fairly secular Israeli families in which being Jewish was part of the air they breathed. It wasn’t anything they did. Judaism, for my father, was the intense quiet that permeated the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur. They knew that this was not going to be my world and they would have to do something to pass on a sense of connection. So they started celebrating the Friday night arrival of Shabbat.

This wasn’t something either of their parents did and so in many ways it was a break with the past, a passive Jewish identity becoming active. And it worked. My mother lighting the candles and intoning, “Shabbat Shalom” in a singsong voice, my father sprinkling salt onto his challah. These are the earliest rituals I remember and they signify to me home and a tie to something deeply rooted.

My wife and I wanted the same for our daughter, Mika. So from the time she was one, we stumbled into our own Friday night routine. In a way, it’s one of the only stable parts of our lives in these days of patched together childcare schedules, long hours of work, and the chaos of living all together in a 650 square foot one-bedroom apartment.

The highlight, for Mika, is the challah. In fact, at this point she could care less about any other part of our little choreography of candles and wine. She’s just beginning to understand more complex sentences, but when I asked her the other day what we eat on Friday, she yelled out, “Challah!” I can understand why, though. We’ve managed to find some really good stuff.

Whenever I get home from work on Friday, I put Mika in the stroller and we go over to a small specialty gourmet food store called Grab in our neighborhood in Brooklyn. As soon as we walk in, assaulted by the smell of many cheeses, we ask for our challah, kept behind the counter like some kind of contraband and made by Amy’s Bread, a bakery in the city (yes, we don’t actually bake it ourselves — but Amy Scherber has been kind enough to share the recipe below). Then there’s the struggle with Mika who wants to hold it all the way home (once I let her and she dropped the challah, and then we ran over it with her stroller). After that struggle comes another about whether she can eat some before my wife gets home. I usually lose that one.

But soon we’re all around the table, blessing this bread, which is not too sweet or densely eggy. It’s even a little salty. Mika loves when I break off pieces for all of us. She stuffs all of hers in her mouth. It might not seem like much by way of tradition. But I do feel in that moment every week like she is learning something through the regularity, that she understands — if only because she enjoys the challah — that these are the few minutes in our lives when we enter into a special zone that’s different from the rest of the week, a time of ritual and sacredness, one of the last we’ve got.

Challah from Amy’s Bread

Courtesy of Amy Scherber

A note from Amy: In the early days of the bakery, we made challah every Friday to sell in our retail stores. Our customers looked forward to taking home a braided challah to eat for dinner on Friday evening. Today, we make challah every day, in a variety of shapes — braided loaves, dinner rolls, and sandwich rolls. It has become one of our most popular breads.

Yield: One Braid and One Snail-Shaped Loaf

1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
1 cup warm water
4 tablespoons canola oil or other vegetable oil
3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
1 large egg
1 yolk of a large egg
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 large egg for egg wash

Line two 12 x 17-inch sheet pans with baking parchment.

1) Combine the yeast and the very warm water in a measuring cup and stir to dissolve the yeast. Let the mixture stand for 3 minutes. Place the warm water, oil, sugar, egg, and egg yolk in a large bowl and whisk them to combine. Add the yeast mixture and whisk again.

2) In a large bowl add the flours and the salt and whisk together. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry, and mix with your fingers or a wooden spoon until the dough gathers into a sticky mass. When all of the flour is incorporated, move the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead it for 5 minutes. The dough should be sticky and wet. If it feels stiff or dry, knead in additional cool water, one tablespoon at a time. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 20 minutes.

3) Return the dough to a very lightly floured work surface and knead it for 5 more minutes. The dough will go from being sticky to smooth and will become supple and stretchy. It should be soft, not firm. Place the dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl and turn the dough to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until it doubles in volume. A hole poked into the dough with a finger should hold its shape, and should not bounce back.

4) Separate the dough into 4 pieces, three of equal length (rolled into a log, about 17 inches long) and one larger piece (about 20 inches). Braid the three smaller pieces of rolled out dough and place it on the baking sheet. Roll the final piece into a cinnamon bun shaped loaf and place it on the second baking sheet. Cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature for about 45 to 60 minutes or until nearly doubled in volume. About 20 minutes before the dough is ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425° F and position 2 racks in the center of the oven.

5) In a small bowl, mix 1 egg with 1 teaspoon of water to make an egg wash. Gently brush the top and sides of the loaves, coating them evenly all the way around. Place the pans on the center racks in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pans from top to bottom, and reduce the oven temperature to 350° F. Continue baking for 10-15 more minutes. If your oven has a convection option, switch it to convection for the last 5 minutes of baking, to improve the browning of the crust. Watch the loaves carefully during the last few minutes. They can become dark very quickly. They should be golden brown but still slightly soft.

6) Place the loaves on a wire rack to cool before serving. This bread is best enjoyed a few hours after the loaves have been baked.

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