Patricia's actual gorgeous challah that she really baked! (Photo/Patricia Keer Munro)
Patricia's actual gorgeous challah that she really baked! (Photo/Patricia Keer Munro)

A meditation on baking challah, in five acts

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Prologue: Waking up

Stumble into the kitchen, fill the electric kettle, flip the switch. While it heats, pull out the dented metal bowl. Dump in two scoops of yeast, a cup of flour, and some sugar.

Scoop ground coffee into the coffee maker and wait until the water boils. As the coffee brews, mix boiling water with cold tap water. Too cold and the yeast won’t grow; too hot and it dies. Slightly warmer than body temperature is just right. Mix the warm water into the flour and yeast.

Read the paper, eat some oatmeal, drink coffee. Drink more coffee. Wake up as the yeast comes alive: consuming sugar and flour and bubbling out carbon dioxide and alcohol into a fermenting mix. Stir it down into a sticky lump.

Act One: Preparing the dough

Begin with a healthy tablespoon of salt. Cordelia told Lear she loved him as much as salt. Lear did not see it then, but salt is the flavor of life, as precious as love. Too much salt will make a pretzel challah. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Next, something sweet— honey or brown sugar will work, but white sugar brings out the wheat flavor of the dough. How much is enough? How sweet is the new year? That’s how much.

Then add four eggs for structure and strength. Some Jews crack eggs one at a time into a small bowl to check for blood. Some don’t. Either way, check for pieces of shells. No one wants an unexpected crunch in the challah.

Drizzle a few glugs of olive oil into the bowl for richness and remembrance: Olive trees grow in Israel — and in the Bay Area. Mix with a wooden spoon into a sloppy batter. Time for flour.

Begin with three cups each of white and whole wheat. Different colors, different textures, different flavors mixed into one bread. Add half a cup of gluten flour to make the challah stretchy and flexible. Now more water — at least a cup; maybe two. The dough will feel too wet, then too dry, and finally just right: springy, yeasty, alive.

Tip the dough onto the counter and knead: Pull the dough forward with strong fingers; push it away with the heel of the hand. Back and forth, back and forth. The week past; the Shabbat to come. Some people use bread machines, but those do not knead out all the week’s anger and fear, love and joy.

Act Two: Rising

Place the dough, slick with olive oil, in a large covered bowl. It will rise quickly in a warm room. It will rise slowly in a cold room. Even in the refrigerator, overnight, it will rise. Very slowly. A cool temperature won’t kill the yeast, but too much rising will. Yeast is a living thing: it consumes flour and sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and alcohol. If it is not punched down, releasing the gases, it will suffocate and die in its own waste. And so, when it has doubled in size, punch it down, then let it rise again.

Act Three: Shaping

When there was a Temple in Jerusalem, priests offered sacrifices brought by Jews: bulls and sheep and goats; doves and wheat. Some sacrifices were burned entirely, but most were shared — the Jewish people sharing a meal with God.

The Romans destroyed the Temple, scattered the Jews. The altar, controlled by male priests, become the table on which we Jews share meals. “Mafrish challah,” separating challah, is one of the few mitzvot rabbinic Judaism made incumbent on women.

It is a simple and symbolic act: Separate a piece of dough at least the size of an olive from the whole. Say a blessing—the ending is “l’hafrish challah min ha-issah”—and burn the dough. Why women? Some say it is because Sarah made bread to serve to the angels. Perhaps. But there is a more radical interpretation: Home is a temple; cooking and cleaning are sacred acts, the table is a holy place. And women—most often—make it so. Women make the sacrifice, because women are the priests. Mafrish challah is both traditional and radical.

Split the remaining dough into several lumps of dough. Two large challahs represent the double sacrifice of Temple days, add a challah for the neighbor, make some tiny challot for small children.

“The First Jewish Catalog” uses simple line drawings to show how to braid a six-strand challah. Six is a fine number. There are six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. There are six days leading up to Shabbat. But let’s be honest: A six-strand challah is a beautiful thing.

Place the braided challahs on a baking sheet or two, leaving space for growth, cover them and wait until they’ve risen. How long to wait? A shorter rise makes a denser bread; a longer rise makes a lighter bread. It’s like matzah balls, tastes vary.

Act Four: Baking and cooling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Some brush on beaten egg for a shiny finish, some leave it plain. Bake for 45 minutes. As it bakes, air pockets made by the yeast expand and chemical reactions borne of heat stiffen the bread. A crust forms. When the crust feels firm and looks light brown, it’s fully cooked. Cover it with a wet cloth as it cools, so the crust stays soft and moist. It’s ready for Shabbat or the holiday table.

Act Five: Shabbat

Why does Hamotzi, the blessing over bread, conclude: “Who brings bread out of the earth” and not “Who brings wheat out of the earth”? To create bread requires a partnership between God and humanity, say the rabbis. Saying bread, not wheat, marks that partnership.

The challahs sit on the Shabbat table. In my house, we give tzedakah, then light candles. I bless my children, then watch as they bless their children. One grandchild helps hold the Kiddush cup; another leads the Hamotzi. The baby bangs her loaf on the tray. Shabbat created between generations; a partnership and a blessing.

Patricia Keer Munro
Patricia Keer Munro

Patricia (Trish) Munro received her doctorate in Sociology from UC Berkeley and is the author of “Coming of Age in Jewish America: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Reinterpreted.” She currently uses her sociological knowledge and skills as a city council member in Livermore.