For years, I've heard people talking about making Challah. My mother made Challah when I was a kid. It's a rich, eggy Jewish bread, usually braided, and usually beautiful. People rave about it, and because it's rich, it lasts well. It's lovely, but I'd never made a loaf. So I decided, "it's time!"
Some people might wonder, "Why a sourdough Challah?" Simple - it's an old bread, so I feel it was originally made with natural leavens. Or sourdough. And I am attached to that tradition.
Finding a recipe wasn't easy, and I'm not done with the search. I'm not Jewish, but I like to honor the traditions in any traditional bread I bake. Many of the recipes I found include milk, and I rejected those recipes as being unauthentic. (See note below if you want more information on this topic.)
In the end, the recipe I started with was from George Greenstein's "Secrets of a Jewish Baker," and converted to sourdough. I feel the recipe is good, but a bit too dry. When I braided the dough, it tore and separated. It should be a firm dough so the strands won't fuse, but they shouldn't be that dry. Maybe this was because George and I used different flours. Maybe it was a difference in altitude between the coast of New York City and the mountains of Colorado.
Whatever the cause, several trials have shown the dough hydration is critical. If the dough is a bit too wet, it will slump together when braided. If the dough is a little too dry, the dough will shred and be hard to braid. The key is to add the last flour to the dough slowly, creating a firm dough, one where the dough will seal a seam only with some effort. Still, expect to make this recipe a few times before you get it consistently right.
This recipe is for one good sized loaf.
1 cup active starter at 100% hydration
1/2 cup water
3 2/3 cups White Flour (all purpose or bread flour)
2 tsp Salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Misc - another egg for egg wash, poppy or sesame seeds
Pour out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough, adding more flour sparingly, until the dough is smooth, satiny, has lost most of its stickiness, and is fairly firm. You probably should not use all the flour called for above.
Cover and allow to rise until tripled in volume.
Punch down the dough, knead briefly, cut into four pieces of the same weight. Divide one piece into three pieces of the same weight. Form all the balls into strands of about 12 to 14 inches in length, tapered so the center of each piece is thicker than the ends. You should now have three thick and three thin strands. Braid the three thick strands into a loaf and set aside.
Braid the three smaller strands into a smaller loaf. Lightly indent the top center of the larger loaf down its length. Wet it slightly with water. Put the smaller loaf on top of the indention.
Beat another egg with a few tablespoons of water. Brush this egg wash all over the nested loaves and let them rise until doubled.
Preheat your oven to 350F. With baking stones or tiles in your oven, this will probably take about 45 minutes to an hour.
When the oven is ready, brush the loaves with the egg wash again. Sprinkle the loaves with poppy or sesame seeds. Slide into the oven, bake about 35 minutes. If there is a white line between the braids, continue baking until it disappears. Press lightly between the braids on the highest part of the bread. It should be firm.
(*) A note about milk in Challah. I looked at Temple San Jose's web page when I created this page. Sadly, the excellent page is no longer available except at the Interent Wayback machine. You may look at http://web.archive.org/web/20130302132018/http://www.templesanjose.org/JudaismInfo/faq/kashrut.htm for more information about the Jewish dietary restrictions.
They say, "A kid may not be boiled in its mother's milk. The boiling of a kid in its mother's milk was an ancient Canaanite fertility ritual which compounded the symbols of the baby kid with the mother's milk. This was considered an offensive and idolatrous ritual to the ancient Israelites and is forbidden by the Torah. The Torah emphasizes the importance of avoiding pagan idolatrous customs and it is clear that this ritual was considered especially offensive. The prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother's milk forms the basis for the later expansion of kashrut laws to exclude the mixing of milk and meat products."
They continue a few paragraphs further down, "Separation of milk and meat products to prevent inadvertent transgression of the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk. Since one cannot always be sure of the source of the meat and the milk, they developed a system of cooking and eating that required completely separation of cooking and eating utensils, and forbid serving milk and meat products on the same table at the same time."
As a result of these considerations, Jewish breads may not contain milk, unless they are clearly formed in such a fashion that all will understand that they contain milk, lest someone accidentally serve milk-containing bread with meat.
Some people will comment that my kitchen isn't Kosher, and no matter what I do to or with the bread I bake, it won't be Kosher. I know that. However, to the extent that I can, I prefer to honor the traditions surrounding a food when I prepare a traditional dish. Since Jewish breads may not contain milk, I looked for a recipe that did not contain milk as a starting point.
Three more points that people not familiar with Jewish traditions may find interesting. It isn't the bread that is the Challah. It is a small portion that is removed from the loaf and offered to G*d. There are prescribed ways of making this offering.
Originally the Challah was offered to the Cohen (priest) in the times of the Temple. Since the Temple was destroyed, the Challah is burnt as it is considered Holy and an observant Jew may not use it. To keep the bakery from smelling like burned bread, the offering is wrapped tightly in aluminum foil.
The next thing is that that a Jewish person would not write out the name of the Deity. Writing it out would make the paper (assuming the page was printed) sacred, and if someone who didn't know better burned or defiled the paper, they would have sinned. Leading someone into transgressions is frowned upon, so an observant Jew spells out the name of the Deity incompletely, as in "G*d". The semi-reformed computer nerd in me wonders if a Jewish computer nerd would spell it "G?d"? (No disrespect intended. Really. It's an attempt at humor about computer nerds, not about religion or anyone's Deity.)