I don't know how this happened, but I received a coupon for a free 5-pound bag of challah flour (pre-sifted!). Well, then. That’s not something you pass up, is it? I took it as a sign that my ancestors were telling me, “Would it kill you to bake some challah bread, already?”
Challah is an eggy bread that’s traditionally served at feasts such as those celebrating the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, though it's eaten all year long because the truth is it's freakin' delicious. It's a bread of variety and contradictions: It can be soft white or bright yellow, very sweet or comfortingly mild, hard-shelled or puffy and soft. The archetypal challah is braided (sometimes ornately, sometimes simply), and sprinkled with sesame seeds (or poppy, if you're so inclined to walk around with telltale dots in your teeth for days).
Sometimes we are burdened by the luxury of choice. I couldn't narrow down my list to a single one -- should I choose the plain version from a family recipe or the more involved Apple-Honey Challah? -- so I went with both. So nu?
The Apple-Honey Challah got interesting right away. The recipe called for two eggs and three yolks, but somehow the three whites got dumped in absentmindedly by someone whose name might or might not be Molly Bloom. And that was the beginning of the end: The 2/3 cup of honey was supposed to be divided, but I didn’t notice that part until it was all mixed in (scary, since I read recipes for a living). The dough was so wet that I had to add an extra cup of flour to make it viable. I set the poor mess in the sun to recuperate and rise … and that's when I realized I'd forgotten the salt. “Grandma,” I said to the sky, “Don’t look.”
The second bread attempted during the Great Challah Blowout of 2012 was my boyfriend's aunt's recipe. This one would end up as the more traditional dairy-free braided challah; the dough was to rise only once (versus three times for the Martha recipe) and it would have to be able to stand up to being pulled and shaped. I double-checked each amount and step so I wouldn't destroy my dough again, paying extra-close attention lest my great-grandmothers, Molly and Anna and Anna and Fanny, get in on the fist-shaking from the beyond.
Miracle of miracles, this one went well. The dough rose in the sun, content and fat, and when it held my fingerprints it was ready to be shaped. But first its poor brother got punched around a bit and got some apple slices massaged into its mass -- it didn't look pretty and I didn't have high hopes for it, since it hadn't risen much. On the other hand, the braided challah's dough was so easy to work with. Don't judge, but I cooed at my dough approvingly as I shaped it ("Who's my little dimpled doughball who's going to grow up to be a doctor? Who? Is it you? Yes, it's you!").
While the golden child was baking I took a look at the Apple-Honey Challah, expecting it to look like Quasimodo ... and was surprised to see that on its second rise it had come into its own. The dough was holding together and was just as workable as the braided challah's dough.
All along, I recited my new mantra: "Whatever, it's RUSTIC."
You know what? Ovens are like magic. You put a knobby blob of dough in one and set the timer and go on the porch to read a book and spit grape seeds over the railing and then a while later you hear a quiet "bing" so you go back into the kitchen and find this:
And this too:
It's almost too much to grab a knife and cut into warm bread -- like when a mother just can't bring herself to watch at her son's bris. Just like that. But I got over the guilt because it was past lunchtime. And when there's salted whipped butter in the vicinity, nobody can hold me back.
The Apple-Honey Challah turned out fabulous! I totally saved its life! I actually apologized to it for having been so hard on it during its awkward adolescence. It was so sweet and yellow, though perhaps a little dense, and the salty crust made up for having forgotten the salt inside. The braided challah had a mild flavor -- I would add more salt next time, and maybe some chopped fresh rosemary. But now I know I can braid challah with the best of 'em, and that's something to be proud of.
PS: It's okay, Grandma. You can look now.
Do you have traditional recipes you've always wanted to try? Get baking and let us know how it goes!