I’m going to start with Shabbos (Shabbat) because when I think of authentic Jewish food, that’s where it all begins. Golden Chicken Soup, Fortifying (and sometimes stupefying) Cholent, Satisfying Fish Dishes, Wine, and of course, Challah.
Challah is the braided bread Jews from Eastern and Western Europe serve during the three Shabbos meals (Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon). Jews from other countries serve a variety of exotic loaves, but bread is essential. Without it, a meal isn’t a meal, according to Jewish law.
Challah today is generally a white loaf, rich with eggs, and containing flour, oil, honey or sugar, yeast, and salt. White flour is considered de rigueur because back in “the old country” white flour was more expensive and also represented purity and refiinement. Also, Shabbos is described in the sacred literature as a Queen or Bride, and white challah, veiled and served on a white tablecloth, reflects that cherished imagery.
Most (not all) commercial challah is, unfortunately, overmixed, causing oxygenation, i.e. bleaching, of the flour. Overmixing flour incorporates more air into the dough, cutting down on expenses; air is free, flour is not. Commercial challah often contains dough conditioners, hydrogenated fats, and significant portions of yeast to dough. Though feather light, it is difficult to digest.
Homemade challah almost always contains better quality ingredients. Jewish mamas don’t have to be health-freaks to know that hydrogenated fats like margarine or Crisco aren’t what the doctor ordered. Often people experiment by trying varying proportions of whole wheat flours, different types of oils, fewer eggs, and so on. But is it really healthier or more digestible?
According to a small survey I did last spring, storebought and homemade challah caused bloating and intestinal discomfort in 7 out of 8 people. Several people I spoke to were convinced they had gluten intolerance. Some switched to spelt challah and said it made a difference. But spelt contains gluten, too. I took a close look at what was really going on.
STUFFING The number one reason that people complain of discomfort from eating anything, including challah, is because they over eat. If you eat more than one or two pieces of challah, and then a large meal afterwards, you will have discomfort. Eating more food (no matter what type of food) than you are accustomed to eating, will also make you feel wonky, as will eating many different types of food at one meal.
Of Jewish interest: In order to make a blessing over bread, known as the “Hamotzei”, one must eat a certain minimum amount of bread, refered to as a “kaziyis”. It is recommended by the great scholar and mystic, R. Yosef Karo (the codifier of Jewish law), that one eat no more than three slices of challah on Shabbos. Of course, back in the 15th century when he first made his recommendation, there was no such thing as supersized portions, so the fish, soup, and meat courses that followed the challah were probably much smaller than those we serve today. Bread also was far more nutritious, and one could live on it. The fine white flour we have today wasn’t available, so even 16th century white flour contained some bran and germ. Also, there was no such thing as commercial yeast–all breads were based on wild yeast (aka sourdough, though it isn’t always sour tasting). Which leads me to my next point…
YEAST For many, it isn’t the flour. It’s the yeast! Large amounts of yeast wreak havoc on the digestive tract. Bread based on starter (either without commercial yeast or with small amounts of commercial yeast) is easier to digest.
JUNK The reason spelt challah works for so many people may not be because spelt replaces wheat, per se. First, storebought spelt challahs and breads tend to use whole grain spelt flour, not refined white spelt flour, which definitely is a plus. Second, most commercial spelt breads are made by “health food” or natural foods bakers. They don’t add a lot of junky ingredients like dough conditioners, hydrogenated fats, corn syrup, and so on to their loaves. So the quality of the bread is better, independent of the flour used. For many the combination of junky ingredients in the poorer quality commercial challahs is the culprit. These people find homemade challah easy to digest, even when made with wheat flour rather than spelt. Experiment.
My approach: Eating white flour once a week, as part of a nutrient-rich meal like the Shabbos meal, isn’t a big deal. George Ohsawa, the father of the Macrobiotic movement ate white rice on occasion. Sure, polished grains vs. whole grains contain less nutrients. But we don’t just eat for nutritional reasons.
Notes: For several years I’ve been making what my family and friends refer to as “French-bread Challah”. I use a mixture of white and whole wheat flour and the ratios vary. It is a very forgiving recipe that replaces large amounts of yeast with an often underused ingredient: time. Time can do what kneading (developing the gluten) and yeast (expansion) do.
Yes, there are a lot of steps, but read the recipe in advance. You’ll see that each step is actually very simple and doesn’t take a lot of time. I give the measurements here in cups, though weighing the flour gives more professional results (most people ask me for cup measurements). You can use 100 percent whole wheat flour, (I like King Arthur’s “white whole wheat” flour which is a softer, lighter-colored whole wheat flour) or all purpose flour, or a mixture. This is a very digestible challah for those who don’t want rich ingredients. It is delicious toasted during the week, as well.
French-bread Challah (My regular recipe, makes 6 medium loaves).
For the starter:
4 cups warm water
1/2 tspn. instant or active dry yeast (When using 5 lbs. flour, still use no more than 1 tspn. yeast, depending on variety of yeast used.)
4 cups flour (see notes, above)
Make a starter in the mixing bowl. (Whisk yeast into warm water.) When yeast is dissolved and active (a couple minutes) add in the flour and stir well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temp for 2-8 hours. (Should be at least doubled in size).
For the sponge:
3 cups warm water
½-1 tspn. active dry yeast
8 cups flour of your choice
In a clean mixing bowl, stir yeast into the warm water. Stir in starter, and flour and mix very well. Cover with plastic wrap and keep 4-8 hours at room temp until tripled in volume.
For the dough:
8-10 cups flour (here you can add bread flour if you prefer, which is higher in gluten and gives a “breadier” texture, but requires more kneading)
1 Tablespoon unrefined sea salt, not coarse (Redmonds brand is kosher)
Optional: 1-2 Tblspns extra virgin olive oil (you could also use any other oil you prefer-Sunflower or Safflower is okay, even XV coconut is nice). I don’t use Canola oil. I’ll tell you why in a later post.
Additional XV Olive or other oil for bowl.
Gently add flour to sponge in small amounts. Mix in salt. Coat hands in some of the olive oil, and knead gently on work surface or right in bowl until smooth. This requires a quick knead. It produces a shaggy, medium-soft dough.
Tips: You can keep dipping your hands in the olive oil—this is a nice way to add oil to the dough. Add more flour if dough is very rough, or too wet or soft. Of course, if you have a mixer this can made very nicely in the mixer. Also, if you have a scale, it is best to weigh ingredients, and then build up your recipe from your weighed ingredients to duplicate.
Lightly coat dough with oil, place in clean bowl, cover, and let rise until fully doubled in size. About one hour, depending on your kitchen temperature.
Cover dough with large kitchen towel and “take” challah. Without taking challah, you don’t have challah, you’ve got bread. Here are some links to directions for how to take challah.*
Gently shape dough into challah. This is a soft dough and can’t take fancy braids. A simple three-strand braid or two-strand twist works best. Do not twist too tightly or challah will split.
Tips: This recipe responds well to a thick three-strand braid or a two-strand twist. Do not twist too tightly or Challah will split. You can very, very lightly dust individual strands with a bit of flour to help keep them distinct. I don’t bother usually. I don’t put a lot of effort into shaping this particular dough, though I should, I suppose.
This dough works best in a loaf pan. Braid, and then place gently in your loaf pan. This is not a great shaping-type dough.
Cover well with oiled plastic wrap, and let rest about 1-2 hours depending on the temp in your house. You can even refrigerate the loaves for longer, but bring to room temperature before baking. You can place loaves on thin baking sheet if you like (and then place thin baking sheet directly on thick, preheated baking sheet in oven).
Preheat oven to 450-500 half an hour before baking. Use middle rack.
Tip: Maggie Glezer, who wrote the absolutely wonderful James Beard award-winning book, A Blessing of Bread, says at this point lightly press dough with fingertip. If dough does not spring back, but stays indented lightly, the challahs are ready to bake. This test seems to work well with all types of dough.
Place loaves gently in oven. Even though they say it doesn’t make a difference in a home oven, I usually place a pan of boiling water in oven, and/or mist oven quickly if it is a very clean oven. I find this crisps the loaves. Immediately turn down to 350- 375 degrees and bake for about 45-55 minutes. Experiment with oven temp.
Optional: Half-way through the bake, beat whole egg or yolk (with 1 Tablespoon honey or agave syrup, optional) and brush on challahs. At that point you can sprinkle on sesame or poppy seeds, etc. if you like.
You can use a thermometer (210 degrees when done.) I don’t have one so I just remove a loaf from a pan, and tap bottom to make sure it is firm and hollow sounding. On Erev Shabbos, the day before Shabbos, I also like to give the challahs a little extra bake of 5-10 minutes at 350 degrees to crisp up bottom and sides. I generally make large batches and freeze. I defrost what I need a couple hours at room temp. Then I crisp in the oven.
I have used white whole wheat, spelt, all AP flour and other mixtures to experiment. I would use all bread flour, but when kneading 5 pounds of it, you really need a commercial mixer with this dough and I don’t have one, so the AP is easier to knead. A mixer designed for home-use, even a Bosch, will have a hard time with such a heavy dough, though a friend who has one says the new Bosh Universal Plus can do it.
No matter what other delicious eggy, sweet, rich or fluffy Challah I experiment with, my husband keeps requesting this rather spartan one because he finds it the easiest to digest. Also, it’s plain taste and satisfying texture is the perfect foil for rich Shabbos foods.
*For beginners, Step-by-step directions on how to “take” challah (keep clicking “next” at the bottom of the pages to follow). More advanced thoughts on challah: Insights into challah and More insights into challah. Author Tamar Ansh has written quite extensively about challah baking, too.