The sense of smell is one of the most powerful ways that we store memories. Fill your home with the aroma of fresh challahs baking in the oven.
The braided egg bread that Ashkenazi Jews serve for Shabbat originated in the fifteenth century. Jews settled along the Rhine River, and were inspired by the local bakers to prepare this type of challah. Chabad, the orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, has done something truly unique when it comes to recipes for challah. They saved the recipes of challah baked in the shtetls of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Here is a recipe you can try adapted from The Secret of Challah, by Shira Wiener and Ayelet Yifrach. In my home the children baked small challah loaves we called “chalitas,” the diminutive in Spanish. Young children can bake their own “chalitas.”
3 cups of all purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 packet or 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius)
Olive or vegetable oil
When baking challah, we need to perform the mitzvah of hafrashat challah, or “separating challah.” This custom takes us back to the 10th century BCE, to the First Temple in Jerusalem. We separate the prescribed amount of dough before we start forming our challah. The blessing that we say over this piece of dough is:
“Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hafrish challah.”
“Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to separate challah (from the dough).”
We then hold the piece of dough and say,
“Harei zoh challah”, meaning, “this is the challah.”
This piece of dough is burned (not in the oven where the challah will be baked), to remind us of the portion of grain every family gave to the Kohanim serving in the temple (Numbers 15:17-21). This is what is meant by “challah is taken” on packages of kosher bread or matzah.
The original challah was a flatbread baked in a tabun, or earth oven. Dry dung was used for fuel. I always make sure to tell children and teenagers that if they had lived in Ancient Israel, it would have been their chore to collect dung for the oven! Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews bake flatbreads for Shabbat to this day. Young children love making small versions of the adult-sized bread. They can make mini pita bread. Here is a recipe adapted from Cooking with Mali you can prepare at home in your modern oven.
Mix the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a bowl.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and let stand for 15 minutes.
Add the flour and salt, and mix everything together.
Sprinkle some flour on your kitchen counter, and turn the dough out onto it.
Knead the dough with your hands for about 15 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic.
Spread a bowl with some vegetable or olive oil.
Place the dough in bowl, turning it over to coat it with oil on all sides.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Let it rest in a warm place, away from drafts for 3 hours.
Preheat your oven and cookie sheet to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius).
Take out the dough and roll it into a thick rope. 12. Slice it into 10 pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball, and then flatten it with a rolling pin.
To bake, place each disc of dough on the hot cookie sheet, and let it sit in the oven for 4 minutes.
Flip it over and let it bake for another 2 minutes.