Ain't No Challah Back Girl...

Growing up in a predominately Jewish community, one of the special joys of my young life occurred whenever a Jewish holiday would roll around and we would get out of school. Not being Jewish myself, I didn't have any obligation to go to synagogue or otherwise mark the occasion, so I would basically get a free day off of school to do whatever struck my (or my mother's) fancy. It was awesome.

Now that I'm unemployed, I have discovered an unexpected advantage to the arrival of some of the more obscure holidays: my best friend, Lisa, who works at a Jewish non-profit, gets the day off regardless of whether it's a holiday she actively celebrates. Today, she had the day off for Simchat Torah, a day for rejoicing of the Torah, the Jewish holy scriptures, so I proposed that she come over for a traditionally Jewish activity -- baking challah.

Challah is the bread traditionally eaten on the Sabbath in Judaism, and though I've never celebrated the Sabbath, I have eaten a lot of challah in my time, since they sell it at delis and regular grocery stores in my neighborhood. As a proud lover of all things carbohydrates, I've always had a special place in my heart for the eggy, soft, airy crumb of challah, with its slight hint of sweetness. Plus, it makes amazing French toast, another delicacy of which I am quite fond.

I've been contemplating a move into experimenting with bread-baking for some time now, and have tested the waters with cinnamon buns and various pizza doughs, but I had never worked up the nerve to try an actual loaf of bread. I'd also been wanting to embark upon a kitchen project with Lisa, ever since we failed yet again to make a hamantaschen date around the time of Purim. To keep the theme of Jewish baked goods, I settled upon challah as an excuse to get together, and Lisa readily agreed.

In the search for a good challah recipe, I checked out several books on bread baking and kosher cookery from the library, and ultimately decided to go with a recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum, the same author who provided the labor-intensive, but flawless recipe for Justin's birthday cake last year. I should have known better, given that that cake took me four days to make, but Beranbaum's endlessly anal-retentive and precise instructions gave me comfort in embarking upon a new kitchen journey.

Her recipe called for making a sponge the night before, a step also known as pre-fermentation, which adds flavor to the dough and improves its texture. I awoke to find it alive and well, though its consistency had been much altered from the night before, when it had been thick, like pancake batter. Now it was runny and watery with a thick head of yeasty foam, which proved problematic, as I had intended to divide my sponge into two containers because I had made a double batch, knowing that Lisa would want to take home a loaf of her own. 

I knew there was no way of dividing the thin liquid at this point, since I did not know the individual weight of the bowl that contained it, so I had to pour the whole thing into a larger bowl that would accommodate the addition of a double batch of flour. I was terrified that that the bread would be a dud, since I had disturbed the sponge so greatly, but it turned out to be of little importance.

A four-strand braid would have been more traditional, but nearly 24 hours into this project, I didn't have the energy to figure out how to do one. They looked beautiful anyway.
As soon as Lisa arrived, a full day of bread baking commenced. Though Lisa was convinced that no real Jewish people dedicate this kind of time and effort to making challah, I was dedicated to following Beranbaum's instructions to the letter (excluding the problem with the sponge.) We were kneading, resting, proofing, flattening, relaxing, shaping, glazing, and baking the dough until nearly nine o'clock in the evening. Lisa is probably right, but the challah that emerged from my oven is some of the best I've ever eaten.

It's a good thing that it turned out so well, because we ended up with an enormous bread bounty. Each challah that we baked was the size of an infant. We easily could have made one batch of dough and created mini-challahs for both of us, and it would have been plenty. I definitely foresee French toast in our future, and Lisa plans on taking some of hers to the office to impress her coworkers. 

All things considered, I'm not sure whether this foray into bread making has intrigued me further, or scared me away. There were other tempting recipes in Beranbaum's hefty tone that caught my eye, but I'm not sure I'm ready to devote another day of my life to one of them any time soon. There is, after all, plenty of delicious bread available in the bakery section of my local mega-mart without the investment of extensive time and ingredient resources. 

Still, I'm glad that I tried my hand at bread baking, and even more glad that I got to spend an entire day with my best friend to do it. It's rare for us to get this kind of quality time, and I will relish it whenever I can.

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