December 4, 2013
Author: Ronnie V Fein
I never had a Bubbie. When my grandmothers came to this country as young girls at the turn of the 20th century, they were eager to be “real Americans.” They wouldn’t be Bubbie, it was Grandma. They didn’t speak Yiddish to the grandchildren; it was English only.
The food too. They both became “real Americans” in the kitchen.
And yet, along with the macaroni-and-cheese, hamburgers and canned fruit cocktail, there were always a few special favorites like Mamaliga and Stuffed Grape Leaves, Blintzes and Challah.
Only my father’s mother made Challah. She wasn’t a particularly great cook, the way we like to think our grandmothers were. But she was the Challah maven. My mother always reminisced about her bread until finally, years after my Grandma died, I asked for the recipe so I could try my hand at it.
It read: “8 hands flour, 1/2 hand sugar, small glass of oil …”. And so on. Instructions: “bake as usual.”
Were my Grandma’s hands as big as mine? I didn’t remember. Did she mean a juice glass? Or, more likely, a Yahrzeit glass? By the time I first baked a challah those memorial glasses were much smaller than the ones I remembered from my childhood.
And what does “bake as usual” mean to someone who has never baked one?
There was no help from my Mom, who, although a good cook that made anything taste delicious, had never baked challah in her life.
So I experimented. I managed to cobble together a recipe based on Grandma’s proportions but with instructions from recipes in a variety of cookbooks. I finally got it right. And it has become my big brag. Because the challah I make is so good that if there is one food that everyone I know would say is their favorite, it’s that one. It’s the expected bread at my house, whenever, and the expected dinner gift – forget the bottle of wine or the scented candles. “Can you bring one of your challahs?” – a frequent, unabashed question from my friends. There is never enough. Sometimes I bake an extra one and keep it in the freezer just in case.
A few years ago I had lunch with an older cousin who lives far away from me and we hadn’t seen each other in decades. I mentioned my challah adventures and it brought tears to his eyes. He remembered Grandma’s challah too. He hadn’t had a bite in years and years of course but the taste lingered in his memory box. He told me that Grandma’s challah was once legendary in the neighborhood and that it was an award winner.
I hadn’t ever heard that!
But he had grown up in my Grandma’s house and knew so many things I didn’t. Like that time, long before I was even born, my Grandma made challah for a charity auction for her synagogue and it sold for $100!!! That’s a huge amount of money for bread, even today, but can you imagine what that meant in the 1930s?
And even if that amount of award money has, let’s say, grown over time in the way notions in fond memories sometimes do, it was Grandma’s claim to fame and fortune. At least that one night.
I like to think my recipe for challah is my Grandma’s recipe. I like to think that my children and grandchildren, who make challah with me when they come to visit, will someday remember their Grandma’s Grandma’s famous, award-winning bread and teach their children and grandchildren. They will have this recipe with its list of ingredients and clear instructions to help them along the way as they “bake as usual.”
Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author and cooking teacher in Stamford, CT. Her latest book is Hip Kosher. Visit her food blog, Kitchen Vignettes, at www.ronniefein.com and follow on Twitter at @RonnieVFein.
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-110 degrees)
1/2 cup sugar
8-8-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
5 large eggs
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups lukewarm water (about 100 degrees)
1 teaspoon water
poppy seeds or sesame seeds, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, mix the yeast, 1/2 cup warm water, 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar and a pinch of flour. Stir, set aside and let rest for 5 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly. In a bowl of an electric mixer, combine 7-1/2 cups flour with the remaining sugar and salt. In a small bowl, mix 4 of the eggs, the vegetable oil and the lukewarm water. Add to the flour mixture. Add the yeast mixture. Blend ingredients thoroughly. Using the kneading hook, knead for 4-5 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour as necessary to make sure the dough is not sticky.
NOTE: you can make this dough in a food processor (halve the recipe). Cover the bowl of dough and put it in a warm place to rise for about 1-1/2 hours or until doubled in bulk. Punch down the dough, cover the bowl and let rise again for about 30 minutes or until doubled. Remove the dough to a floured surface. Cut dough in 6 equal pieces. Make long strands out of the pieces. Braid the strands and press the ends to seal them completely. Place the braided dough on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Beat the last egg with the teaspoon of water. Brush this over the surface of the bread. Sprinkle with seeds if desired. Let rise again for 30 minutes. Bake for about 30 minutes or until well risen and golden brown.
Braiding a 6-strand Challah:
Place the 6 strands in front of you and gather them at the top end. Press down and seal the six strands at the top so it looks like a lump of dough with 6 strands coming down. Looking at the strands, proceed as follows:
1. Place the far right strand all the way over to the left
2. Place the former far left strand all the way over to the right
3. Place the now far left strand into the middle
4. Place the second strand from the right to the far left
5. The now far right into the middle
6. Second from left to far right
7. Now far left into the middle
Posted in Baked Goods and Desserts
Tags: Challah, Ronnie Fein