Challah – The Bread of Lies?

Over the last month while we have all been social distancing in our own homes the need for camp has only grown stronger. While connecting with our camp community virtually is certainly not as powerful or rewarding as the in-person connections, knowing that we have Virtual CR activities has been something for us all to look forward to each week. As we were brainstorming activities to offer we of course thought about activities and special events kids love at camp. Generations of Robindel girls have enjoyed eating Chef Gary’s challah on Friday nights (and french toast on Saturday mornings!) and in recent years campers have had the opportunity to participate in challah making workshops with Chef Gary and Ann. (For those who were campers in the 80s and 90s – campers sign up for challah making similar to how you signed up for flag or canteen!) Once the yeast has risen (sometime around 10AM) campers hear an announcement calling them to the kitchen to braid their own challah. Many girls like to sign up with their sister, cousin or camp-sister. It is a truly special activity, one that campers remember throughout their years at camp and beyond. When alumni visit camp they can’t wait to see Chef Gary!


While I (Cori) could never fill in for Gary, his truly unbelievable work ethic, his talents in all aspects of cooking including his ability to easily make hundreds of challahs in a single morning…we are in a pandemic, Gary doesn’t have Zoom, I have hungry kids in my house, and Friday was coming…So I decided to lead a virtual challah baking workshop!

I had so much fun baking challah with the Robindel community. I loved hearing from many of you who were excited to join in, having never made a challah before. One family told me that this was on their “quarantine bucket list!” A mom recently told me that her daughters made a challah every day for several days after our session. One Mom wrote to say how much she enjoyed the smell of fresh bread in her house as she came downstairs from work. It made me so happy to think about many of you enjoying a freshly baked challah with your family, and I hope that it is a tradition that lasts beyond this pandemic.

I usually make challah every Friday. Once you taste warm bread out of the oven it is hard to go back to store bought bread! Sometimes my girls braid it with me or braid their own – Romy likes to make hers in the shape of a heart. My husband Adam loves coming home from work on Fridays to a house that smells of baking bread. We love to share it with friends and neighbors too! French toast in the morning is an added bonus! (Simple recipe: 1 egg, 1/3 cup of milk, dash of salt, teaspoon of vanilla, half teaspoon of cinnamon – this is enough for about 3-4 slices of bread.)

Adam calls my challah “the bread of lies.” You see, when I first met Adam he asked his Mom to share her challah recipe with me. She happily sent it to me and I made my first loaf of challah. I slowly changed the recipe to use less sugar, substitute some honey instead of sugar, and to work out the correct baking time and temperature since we are not at altitude and this recipe came from Johannesburg. Adam was so happy that I was making challah and even more so because it was from a recipe passed down generations of his family, or so he thought. One day he was excitedly telling his Mom that I had been making challah each week from the family recipe and his Mom said “uhh, that’s not exactly true. I actually just got it from the local Shul’s newsletter.” He loved the bread enough that he got over this disappointment fairly quickly. Then, we went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner and I brought them a challah. People were commenting on how delicious it was and Adam proudly exclaimed “AND, it has NO sugar!” I interjected, “uhh, that’s not exactly true. I use much less sugar than the original recipe called for, but there is still some sugar.” Thankfully Adam still loves the bread of lies (and me!) and we enjoy it as a family every Friday night. I hope you will too.

Here is my recipe:
3.5 cups flour (I use bread flour)
1 packet (2.25 tsp) active dry yeast
2 eggs (1 is for brushing top of the challah)
1/4 cup oil (I use avocado or canola oil. Probably any neutral tasting oil is fine)
1-4 TBSP sugar (up to you!)*
Honey (I squeeze the bottle for 3 seconds. Not an exact science!)
0.5 tablespoon salt
1 cup warm water

(*As noted above I have experimented with the sugar in this recipe. You need a tsp with the yeast. Beyond that you can do as little as a TBSP or as much as a half cup. It really depends if you want it to be more like bread or more like a sweet bread!)

Place the warm water, teaspoon of sugar, and yeast in a bowl. Let sit for about 5 minutes til it’s foamy.

Meanwhile,
Mix 2 cups of flour plus the salt and sugar in a large bowl.
Make a well in the center and add the water mixture, 1 egg, honey and oil. Mix well.
Gradually add the remaining flour (1.5 cups) to make a dough that no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl.

Transfer the dough to the countertop and knead for 5-ish minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic, springing back when pressed lightly. (It is OK if it is still pretty sticky!)

Oil the sides of a large bowl.
Place the dough in the oiled bowl and turn so that it is lightly oiled all over.
Cover the dough and leave it to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours.
(If you have a proof feature on your oven you can use that. Otherwise, here is my trick for finding a warm place when it’s not warm outside: place a pot of boiling water into the oven, then place the bowl of rising dough into the oven. DO NOT TURN THE OVEN ON. You are just creating a warm environment for the dough to rise.)

After 1-2 hours…
Add a bit of flour to the countertop, place the risen dough on the counter and divide the dough into 3 or 6 strands, depending on what type of braid you plan to do. (Note: you can find a ton of videos online demonstrating different challah braiding techniques. It’s fun to try different ones!)
Braid your challah!

Then, place it on a baking sheet and let sit for a few minutes while the oven warms (preheat to 350 degrees F).
Brush the top with egg white.
Optional: sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds.

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes until nicely brown. (Check it at 25 minutes.)
If you rolled your pieces very long and thin, it will be closer to 25 minutes. A shorter, wider challah will take longer to bake.

Enjoy!

Here are photos of some of the challahs that our campers made during our Virtual CR activity!