Recipe by Bob Evans
(This recipe will make two very large challahs, suitable for a Shabbat potluck. The recipe is a chimera, the result of ideas borrowed from many other people. The ratio of ingredients is from Ella Russel's recipe and uses more butter and eggs than I would have thought possible. The technique of getting the yeast started before adding butter and honey, both of which can inhibit the yeast is from The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. The idea of adding dough "ornaments" to the bread is something that I learned from Rabbi Margaret Holub, a baker of legendary skills in these parts. Letting the dough rest overnight in the refrigerator was a suggestion by Doug Barkey of the Point Arena Bakery, which is a culinary godsend to my part of the Mendocino Coast.)
(There appears to be no end of stories about the origin of the Ashkenazic challah. The word challah, I believe, refers to the small bit of bread that is thrown into the oven and burnt as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. I have heard that there are three strands to remind us of the three pillars on which Judaism rests: Torah, acts of loving kindness and prayer. I have also heard that the poppy seeds are to remind us of the manna received during the exodus. Two loaves of Challah are on the table because in Exodus 16:22 a double portion of food was to be prepared so that it would not be necessary to cook on the Sabbath. There are several explanations as to why the loaves are kept covered until time for the blessing but one often told to children is this is done to not embarrass the bread while the candles and wine receive so much attention. For additional theories on challah braiding check out "ask the rabbi ..."
My favorite writing about challah is from Abraham Joshua Heshel's book The Sabbath where he writes something to the affect that: "in the shtetls of Eastern Europe our ancestors 6 days a week would eat the coarse, dry, black bread of the peasants, but on Shabbat they would eat challah, a bread of such richness and sublime delicacy, that by comparison it was more like cake than bread; much like the contrast between the 6 days of the profane week and the holy day of Shabbat".)
My thanks to Marlys Sellmeyer for pointing out a typo in the recipe.
Copyright Bob Evans 1998 (Updated 07/11/99 (rge))
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