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A Blessing of Bread by Maggie Glezer
The Kosher Table

On Bread Alone
What better to follow a Passover column than one totally devoted to chametz!

-- Lisa Kelvin Tuttle

Bread—the staff of life—is itself a living thing. As with wine and cheese, a basic food is commingled with yeast and other naturally occurring beneficial organisms to produce an entirely new type of food. Both wine and bread are elevated above other foods in Judaism, and each has its own special bracha (blessing) --- acknowledging the input of human ingenuity and effort, in partnership with God, to make it.

Maggie Glezer writes in the introduction to her wonderful book on Jewish bread making, A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs, “Once a meal unto itself and, up until recently, the main source of daily calories, bread became the symbol of all food early in human history and is often the symbol used in the Bible for food. Jewish law says that as long as bread is served, the fare offered constitutes a meal; without it you are having a snack...  for a whole meal --- often comprising dozens of ingredients and a number of dishes --- a simple blessing for bread covers [the blessings for] everything.”

When one thinks of distinctly Eastern European Jewish bread, the trio of challah, bagels and rye bread immediately come to mind. To this list add the bialy (a cousin of the bagel, with origins most likely in Bialystok, Poland); pumpernickel (dark rye made with a touch of cocoa); and pletzel (a delicious treat made with challah, bialy or bagel dough, typically combined with grated onion and cut into rounds). Sweet breads of the Ashkenazi kitchen include babka (a yeasted coffee cake with chocolate or cinnamon); and lekach (honey cake).

Breads from the Sephardi tradition include churek (Greek Sabbath bread); pan de Calabaza (Sephardic pumpkin bread); and Roscas (a Turkish clove-scented coffee cake). North Africans enjoy their bereketei (Ethiopian whole wheat Sabbath bread); chuzbeh di Purim (Moroccan Purim Bread, with anise seeds, raisins, and almonds); and Rarif al Rarif (Eqyptian cheese rolls). Traditional breads we have come to appreciate as Israeli, Near Eastern, or Middle Eastern include pita, bageleh (little Israeli pita bagels); salouf (Yemenite flatbread); and noon Rogani (Azerbaijani spiral bread). Recipes for all these kinds of bread and more can be found in A Blessing of Bread, which does a beautiful job of introducing the aspiring baker to the vast world of Jewish bread.

Challah, because it is so central to the observance of Shabbat, with origins in the Temple service, is the universal Jewish bread. The original challah (meaning dough that has undergone separation) was bread paid by each family as a tithe to the Kohanim (Levite priests) who served in the Temple. Unlike the sweet, golden dough enriched with egg with which most of us are familiar, it most likely resembled pita. The addition of eggs (seen as rich man’s food) was an Eastern European adaptation, lending a feeling of richness to the Shabbat table and enhancing the mitzvah.

Since the destruction of the Temple, the mitzvah of "taking challah" -— commemorating the tithing bread—has been satisfied by separating a portion of the challah (a piece about the size of an olive) and burning the separated piece in the oven. Burning the separated piece is a symbolic sacrifice, accompanied by a blessing (see below), and Jewish law stipulates that only breads made from wheat, barley, maize, spelt, and oats require this separation. Two challahs are served on the Shabbat table as symbolic of the showbread in the Temple and the double portion of manna received prior to Shabbat by our ancestors.

Bread making, the oldest of culinary arts, has recently become my meditation and therapy. The earthy warmth and rhythm of kneading the dough, the marvelous fragrance that fills the house, and the unsolicited compliments that come from serving freshly baked bread bring so much pleasure. It has become, for me, a creative challenge to see how a single recipe will respond to different conditions. Can I start the dough before dinner, make the loaves before bed and let them rise in the refrigerator as I sleep, to be baked in the morning? What will happen if I substitute dried buttermilk powder for milk, or use only whole grain flours?

When time is of the essence, I have depended on my heavy-duty mixer with the dough-hook attachment to knead the dough, or mixed it up in the food processor. But with a little planning I can savor the experience of kneading my dough by hand. These are the breads that feel the most homey and often yield the best result, as thorough kneading by hand not only develops the gluten in the flour—it involves all the senses. And on weeks when there just is no time for making it from scratch, I buy unbaked challah from my local kosher bakery, already braided. I let the loaves rise on a parchment covered baking sheet, brush them with beaten egg, and pop them in the oven. Baking them just before Shabbat still leaves my home filled with that same marvelous fragrance that says ‘it’s Shabbos!’

Until we eat again...


Delicious Challah

There are so many variations on challah—some using water and no eggs, like a recipe passed on to me by a Sephardi ‘rabbanit’ from Jerusalem, some that contain just a touch of sugar or honey. This recipe, adapted from The Kosher Palate is among the best I’ve tried: rich and fluffy, and sweeter than most. I’d eat it for dessert, it’s that good. The original recipe calls for 2 bars of fresh yeast and 3 eggs, but I use active dry yeast and 5 eggs. Traditionally, to fulfill the mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah and say the blessing, more than 3 pounds 11 ounces (approximately 12 or more cups, unsifted) flour should be used. This is why many challah recipes, such as the one that follows, include close to a full 5-pound bag of flour. I have had excellent results halving this recipe. The full recipe will yield 5-7 challot.

  • 4 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
  • 6 packages active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 5-pound bag of high-gluten flour (17 cups flour)
  • 2 cups sugar, overflowing
  • 1 ½ tablespoons salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups canola or corn oil
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash
  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Open oven door.
  2. Combine water and yeast in a medium metal or glass bowl. Stir in 1 tablespoon sugar. Place the mixture on the open oven door (the small amount of heat helps proof the yeast) and let stand for 10 minutes. The mixture will be bubbly (if not, then something is wrong with the yeast and you will need to start over). Turn oven off.
  3. Place flour in a large mixing bowl; remove 2 cups of the flour and set it aside for other uses. Stir in the 2 overflowing cups of sugar and the salt, mixing well. Push the flour against the sides of the bowl, leaving a well in the center.
  4. Pour the yeast mixture, 5 eggs, and 1 ½ cups oil into the well; mix with a wooden spoon until you can no longer stir it.
  5. Knead the dough with your hands until it no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl. The dough should be smooth and springy. If the dough is still very sticky, knead in a small amount of flour until it is smooth.
  6. Brush the top of the dough with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and a dry towel. Let it rise for 1 ½ hours in a warm room. (If your kitchen or room is cold, preheat your oven to 200 degrees, then turn it off, allowing just enough heat to remove the chill. Place the dough in the oven to rise.)
  7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down (this is the point at which challah is taken and the blessing is recited). Divide the dough into 5 to 7 sections. Divide each section into 3 equal parts for a simple braid. To learn how to make the very beautiful braid, see the detailed diagrams for making 3-, 4-, and 6-braided challah in Spice and Spirit: The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook .
  8. Roll each section into a thick rope with slightly tapered ends. Place the pieces side by side on a lightly greased baking sheet and pinch the top ends together. Braid the dough and pinch the bottom ends together. Repeat with remaining dough. Unrisen challahs may be placed in a foil pan, wrapped in plastic and foil, and frozen. Remove from the freezer, thaw, and proceed with recipe directions.
  9. Transfer challahs to baking sheets lined with baking parchment. I place two loaves on one sheet, side by side the short way. Brush loaves with beaten egg and let them rise, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an hour.
  10. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  11. Bake challahs 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and challah sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. (After 15 to 20 minutes, reverse the direction of the baking sheet.) Cool on wire racks.
Taking Challah ~ Hafrashat Challah

Challah is separated after the flour and liquid are well mixed together, while the dough is still whole, before it has been divided and shaped into loaves. Before the piece of dough is separated, the following blessing is said:

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi Elo-hai-nu Me-lech Ha-o-lam a-sher kid-sha-nu b’mitz-vo-tav v’tzi-va-nu l’havf-rish chal-lah.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to separate challah.

Remove a small piece, approximately one ounce, from the dough. Immediately after separating challah (whether or not a blessing is required) say:

Harai zeh challah ~ this is challah

Then, wrap the small piece of dough in aluminum foil and burn it, preferably under the broiler, and not at the same time the loaves are baked.

Sour Corn Rye

This is a whole grain version, from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, of my favorite bread from my childhood. It makes great sandwich bread and is excellent toasted.

  • 3/4 cup cornmeal
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3 1/2 cups whole wheat bread flour
  • 2 cups whole rye flour
  • 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 cups
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup water
  1. Stir the cornmeal into the boiling water and set aside, covered.
  2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Mix the flours, seeds, and salt in a large bowl.
  3. Mix the yogurt, vinegar, oil, and honey into the corn mixture, stirring until smooth.
  4. Stir the cornmeal into the flours, and then stir in the yeast. Use your hands to work the ingredients together into the dough, adding more water if required. The dough should be quite stiff. Knead for about 5 minutes, dipping your hand every 10 strokes or so into the extra 1/2 cup of water so that you gradually work it into the dough. The dough will become quite soft: stop kneading when it gets dramatically sticky. This should take about 15 minutes, but whatever the timing, once the dough gets sticky, stop kneading.
  5. Form the dough into a ball and place it smooth side up in the bowl. Cover and keep in a warm draft-free place. After about an hour and a half, gently poke the center of the dough about ½ inch deep with your wet finger. If the hole doesn’t fill in or if the dough sighs, it is ready for the next step. Press flat, form into a smooth round, and let the dough rise once more as before. The second rising will take about half as much time as the first.
  6. Press the dough flat and divide in two. Round it and let it rest until relaxed, then form into round or oblong hearth loaves or into 8” x 4” pan loaves. Dust the baking utensil with cornmeal after greasing it, and place the shaped loaves on or in it. Let them rise in a warm, draft-free place until the dough slowly returns a gently made fingerprint.
  7. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven. After 10 minutes turn the heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake about 50 minutes more. This bread has a wonderful rise and a warm deep-red crust with bright golden “break” on the sides.
Flam Pletzel Onion Rounds (aka Onion Pletzel)

These little oniony breads are a scrumptious snack. This recipe uses challah dough, but they can be made with bagel or bialy dough as well. This recipe is attributed to Tosia Szechter Schneider in A Blessing of Bread.

  • One half-recipe challah dough (see above), just mixed
  • 1 large yellow onion, ground in the food processor or very finely minced, and drained if very juicy
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Flour a large tray or baking sheet. Divide the dough into twelve pieces and roll each one into a tight round. Place them on the floured tray, sprinkle a little more flour over them, and cover with plastic wrap. Let ferment for about 1 ½ hours, or until the rounds are very soft—the yeasted dough will also become quite airy.
  2. Oil two large baking sheets or line them with baking parchment. Lightly flour your work surface. With a rolling pin, roll each round into a flat disk about 5 inches across or cut into smaller rounds with cookie or biscuit cutter. Arrange the rolls on the prepared sheets and cover them well with plastic wrap. Let the rolls proof until they are very airy, soft, and about twice as thick, about 1 ½ hours. Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange your oven racks in the upper and lower third positions and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  3. Smear a heaping teaspoon of ground onion over each pletzel and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with poppy seeds, if desired. Bake the pletzel for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are golden brown. After about 15 minutes, switch the sheets from front to back and top to bottom so the pletzel brown evenly. Serve immediately or let them cool on a rack.

Previously on the Kosher Table

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