OUR LADIES’ CHALLAH BAKE: LEARNING HOW TO BE JEWISH

15 years ago THIS WEEK I married into a Jewish family, and happily agreed to raise any future children Jewish. Religion has always been an important part of my life, from decades of attending weekly Catholic mass to years of leading the youth group at church. But between learning new traditions, unfamiliar holidays and foreign languages, it was and still can be overwhelming. As I always say, I’ll take any help I can get learning how to be Jewish.

There have been so many wonderful friends and family members who have stepped in to help this poor “shiksa” out. From teaching me the rules of temple life, to my local “Jewish family” who have become godparents to my children. So when I was invited to come bake challah bread with a group of local ladies, I was ALL IN.

A Welcomed Invitation

A few years back, my not-yet-friend Kim reached out and asked me to join she, her mom and several girlfriends to practice their challah baking. I didn’t know Kim at the time, so that gives you an idea of what kind of person she is. Or perhaps the desperateness I exude. The ladies were a mix of practicing and non-practicing Jews, or women who have “married into” the faith and traditions. We kneaded, pounded, and chatted up everything from high holy day plans to “mother-of-the-bar-mitzvah” outfits. I walked out that first year having an entirely new network of kind women who were ready and willing to help this “Jewannabee” out if she needed to phone a friend.

One Serious Challah Hostess

Now Kim does NOT mess around when she hosts these challah bakes. All she asks is that we bring a mixing bowl and pan for transporting the challah home. She happily takes a break from her busy role as Siena professor to provide us hundreds of cups of flour, dozens of eggs, yeast packets and everything else we could need. This includes the slightly modified NYT recipe which she recites without even a peek, after 10 years of challah baking.

What’s so great about Kim’s casual instruction is that she shares tips that no online recipe could. Like how to predict bread consistency based on feel, braid demonstrations (below) and how to incorporate kid-friendly additions like raisins, rainbow sprinkles and Nutella. Several women bring their daughters, so there are plenty of colorful loaves ready to be baked by the end of the evening. And new traditions to be shared.

After we make the dough and let it rise, we can either 1. Braid it there with the help of Kim, and then head home to bake. Or, 2: Try the braid ourselves at home. Because the recipe makes so much dough, I usually split the dough. I’ll braid one there, and bring one home to braid later. Kim shared the significance of the unique round challah shape for Rosh Hashanah, symbolizing the cycle of life. This is different than the oval loaves we’ve baked in years’ past. Watch how Kim shares how easy it is to braid the most BEAUTIFUL circular loaf:

So since we’re always up for a challenge, the boys and I tried the round braid when I arrived home. Now we’re all learning how to be Jewish together! Of course I had to reference my phone for the video demo, but we were pretty darn proud of ourselves. Our little artist had fun painting on the egg wash, and then we baked and hoped for the best. We were SO pleased with both the presentation and taste of our challah, and happily shared it.

Learned something, check! Made the kids food they actually liked, check! Impressed the Jewish in-laws, check! I’d say that’s a Rosh Hashanah win-win-win.

Modifying a Classic Challah Recipe

If we can do it, you can too. Kim’s modification of the NYT Challah recipe goes something like this:

Add 1 1/2 packet (about 3 1/2 tsp.) of active dry yeast to large mixing bowl. Add 1 3/4 c. warm water and dissolve yeast. Add 1 tbsp. sugar and dissolve. Whisk 1/2 c. oil (recipe calls for vegetable, she uses olive). Add four eggs and beat well. Add another 1/2 c. sugar and 1 tbsp. salt.

Then add one cup of flour at a time, until you get your desired consistency. (Kim says 7 cups gets you sticky but dough-ey bread, 8 is easier to work with and makes a cakier baked consistency). Take dough from bowl, and knead it on a floured surface until smooth.

Clean bowl, and add 1 tbsp. oil to bottom to coat bowl. Put dough ball back in, cover with saran, and let rise for 30 min. Pound it down, cover again and let rise for another 30 min. (*cheat alert: we’ve gotten away with skipping parts of the rising process). Pound it down and separate dough in two for two loaves (one can even be frozen and thawed).

Kim shared that she often makes one “adult” loaf, and one with kid-favorite additions… like additional honey (to make the Jewish New Year extra sweet), rainbow sprinkles, or filling the braid strands with Nutella.

Before you put it in the oven, brush with an egg wash of one egg (or add 1 tsp vanilla for a sweeter taste). The recipe calls for a higher temp, but I’ve had great success baking mine at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

So perhaps my 5-Minute Tuna Poké Bowl or Salad Niçoise recipes that I’ve shared in the past were a bit too adventurous for your family. But I GUARANTEE you… when this bread is baking in your oven, they WILL come-a-running.

4 comments

  1. this is amazing! thank you for sharing. and as a new member of the Saratoga community (all the way from Los Angeles) i would be thrilled if you ever had an event like this that i could join. I miss my Jewish community dearly and having moved her during Covid it has not been easy to find my tribe. i went to Massachusetts yesterday to celebrate RH with some friends but wish that by next year, I will have some Jewish community here! (and i am happy to always practice challah baking too!!)

    • Thanks so much for the note Cindy! I sure will! It’s been a tough year with so few organized things like this, so I was thrilled when Kim opened her home to us again. If I hear of anything else, I sure will! And Welcome!!!XO

  2. Thank you for sharing! As a non-Jewish Saratoga native now living as an expat in Israel, I need all the help I can get with the ingredients that are available! Shana Tova!

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