Thirty-five years ago, I made challah weekly. In recent years, my schedule has not allowed me to continue this practice. When we began to host Shabbat dinners in my Cafe, some of our regulars always brought in whole wheat challot from a bakery forty minutes from us. On a recent week when that particular group was unable to attend, I decided to try my hand again at making challah.
These days I have considerations I didn’t have thirty-five years ago. One is that I like more of a whole grain loaf than I did in years past, and grains require time and patience, as Sally Fallon points out in Nourishing Traditions.
Another consideration is that I wanted the challot to be vegan, that is, they should use only plant food ingredients, no animal products. With the traditional egg challah, that changes the program considerably. Since my favorite challah, though, is water challah, which I remember fondly from my days in West Rogers Park, that didn’t strike me as a problem. Wrong.
Try searching the internet for a water challah recipe! Many of the recipes with that name included eggs, at the very least an egg wash on the crust to hold the seeds on top. More often the eggs were in the challah itself. Puzzling.
In other search results, it was clear that the search engines simply brought up a result for water challah because the recipe was for challah, which contained water. In addition, all the recipes had quite a bit of sugar.
After much searching, I decided to try using my spelt and 7-grain cereal roll recipe. That worked – sort of. The loaves weren’t as pretty as I hoped and ended up going into my freezer for future home consumption. Back to the internet.
Finally I found an article about something called berches. With that new search term, I was able to find a host of appropriate recipes, recipes with no eggs and very little sugar. I actually did try one of those recipes, and it worked beautifully with one exception – the crust dilemma.
How could I get that beautiful, shiny crust so characteristic of challah and hold an abundance of seeds to the loaf? Flaxseed and water can work as an egg substitute in many cases, so I tried a flaxseed/water wash. It turned the crust white, and all the seeds dropped off. I tried several other techniques, but nothing worked. Finally I gave up on the seeds, but I gave a little shine to the crust by brushing it lightly with extra virgin olive oil when it came out of the oven.
In the search for a water challah recipe, here are some things I learned about challah making that will enrich my own experience:
- What I was calling water challah was an egg-free type of challah made in Germany and called berches. The word berches is from the word berach or “bless”. It refers to the challah or bread that one blesses at the Sabbath meal. Many Jews, German and other, no longer know or use that word for the challah, but there are a few bakers in Germany who continue to make it. I was enjoying a commercial variety in West Rogers Park under the name water challah.
- Traditionally challah has seven ingredients, corresponding to the seven days of the week or to the fact that Shabbat occurs on the seventh day: 1) flour, 2) water, 3) yeast, 4) salt, 5) sugar, 6) eggs, and 7) oil.
- When the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., the rabbis created a system of substitutions for Temple worship and a priestly sacrificial system. The family table substituted for the altar, and the ordinary Israelite took on the role of priest. The two loaves of challah on the table represent that transition with the challah substituting for the two loaves of showbread on the ancient altar.
- Women were included in that transition as well, and challah-making is a place where we can see that clearly. Part of the ritual of challah-making includes separating the challah, removing a small piece of the dough, saying a blessing and burning the piece in the oven. Since women, once upon a time, were likely to be the ones making the bread, this “sacrifice” would have been an example of their taking on the role of the priest in the absence of a Temple and priestly system.
Most importantly, what I learned from challah-making is how rituals can create a thoughtful, meditative experience and, by the way, good (and nourishing) food. At the intersection of the rituals of bread making, rituals I have developed over the years for creating healthy foods, my newly developing ritual of vegan bread making, and the rituals of challah-making, I had an opportunity to experience with full awareness my place in the cosmos, in history and in the environment. As I ate the challah I made, I experienced it as the Staff of Life it once was and can still be.
Here is my recipe for spelt berches or water challah, which I now make every week again. Be sure to WEIGH the flour. Your challah will come out perfectly every time! If you’ve never used spelt, try it. It’s a form of wheat flour, and it is absolutely beautiful to work with. I use spelt in all my breads now.
(Makes 2 loaf pan-sized loaves or two double-braid loaves. 3 lb. 8.2 oz. of flour are required to separate and bless the challah, so if you’d like to perform this ritual, double the recipe).
(Still seven ingredients even tho no eggs!)
- 1 lb. spelt flour, WEIGHED
- 1 lb. unbleached wheat flour, WEIGHED
- 1 tsp. active dry yeast
- 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1/4 cup + 2 cups warm water
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 white potato, peeled, cooked, mashed and cooled
- 1 TB salt
- Peel and cut up the potato and place it in a small pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft.
- Drain the potato cooking water into a measuring cup. Add cold water or ice cubes until the water level reaches 2 cups.
- Pour the 2 cups of water back into the potatoes and mash thoroughly with 1 TB salt.
- Weigh the spelt flour into your mixing bowl until you reach 1 lb. Add unbleached wheat flour until you reach 2 lb.
- Stir the flours together and make a well in the center.
- Pour 1/4 cup warm water in the well. Add yeast and sugar and stir gently to dissolve. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until bubbling.
- Add the mashed potato, salt and water mixture to the flours. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the mix.
- Stir all together briefly.
- Knead the dough for 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. I do this on my Kitchenaid Mixer with the dough hook. The spelt dough works so beautifully that I never have to clean out the bowl before the next step.
- Add a little oil to the mixing bowl, and roll the dough in it it until it is completely coated.
- Cover the dough in the bowl with a plastic bag (I reserve a garage bag for this purpose). Let rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours.
- Punch down, knead slightly and set aside.
- Get out your scale and mixing bowl again! Divide the dough into two halves, one for each loaf. Make certain the two halves weigh the same so your loaves will be the same size.
- Shape the challot. Divide each half into six approximately equal pieces. Roll into strips as in the picture, with the middle of each strip larger than the ends. Roll in very light flour so strips will remain separate from each other as they rise.
- Three strips will make a braid. Place one strip on your work surface, and place two strips over it in an “x” shape. Braid from the middle toward each end and tuck the ends under. Repeat with three more strips. Place one braid on top of the other, and secure the ends.
- Repeat this process with the other half of the dough.
- Place each loaf on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina to prevent sticking.
- Cover the loaves again with plastic, and allow to rise until doubled, 40 minutes. DO NOT overraise. The top braid will fall to one side, and/or the loaves will flatten.
- During this second rise, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- When the loaves are ready, remove the plastic and put the baking tray with the loaves into the pre-heated oven.
- After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 30-35 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and brush the crust lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Cool.
At this point, I brushed my loaves with a mixture of flaxseed and water, an egg substitute which I hoped would hold seeds in place. It didn’t, and it turned the tops of the loaves white. It did not affect the flavor. I’m going to do a little research for other solutions for a seed-sprinkled shiny vegan challah crust.