My challah-baking experiment? Fell flat

Making bread for Shabbat is a job best left to the professionals

By Alex Kasriel, February 18, 2009
Alex Kasriel with her home-made challah fresh from the oven. They tasted better than they look

Alex Kasriel with her home-made challah fresh from the oven. They tasted better than they look

Does anyone still actually make challah? Frankly, this tradition is rather time-consuming. All that proving and kneading takes a lot of work. And it is so much easier to part with around £1.60 at the local Jewish bakery for a loaf of the doughy stuff.

Shop challahs are often tastier and lighter — but they have been prepared under highly controlled conditions. The ovens are at the right temperature and the kneading machines do all the work. Meanwhile, the professional bakers have an agent in their flour to make it just the right consistency.

But there is something gratifying about carrying on the tradition of making the ancient bread that has been passed on from mothers to daughters through the generations.

JC cookery expert Judi Rose explains that while women always used to make the dough — mixing it and letting it rise themselves — they would then take it to a professional baker who would put it in an oven for them.

“It’s a lot of work. It pretty much takes a day to make a loaf of bread. The longer you let it rise, the better it tastes,” explains Rose. “People don’t do it, like they don’t cook three-course meals anymore. I applaud those who pass down the tradition from mother to daughter but often what you end up with is a low-rise, dense, chewy loaf. It’s nice to do it yourself but it’s not a significant ritual.”

She does, however, suggest that there is a trend for going back to basics. The Slow Food movement encourages doing things the hard way, using authentic ingredients so that we connect with the past. With that in mind, and because the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) for London is having a big bake-along today, I decide to embark on my own challah baking mission.

The JCC’s virtual event encourages people to follow the recipe published online and in its brochure and email photos of their results. “We’ll give you the recipes, tell you what pots and pans you’ll need and take you through it step by step,” says the booklet.

However, it turns out that the recipe (taken from the internet) is a little unusual and does not have much in the way of instruction. “I’d be happy to be proved wrong,” says Rose after reading the recipe and finding much to quarrel with. For starters, it is American and uses the cup as a measurement. Who has measuring cups in this country? Judi warns that the flour across the pond is different to ours. And this recipe only uses the wholewheat variety, which is, apparently, extremely unusual.

I get to work regardless, adding 12fl oz of water to my yeast. Once it has bubbled, in goes the flour, cinnamon, oil, salt and sugar. But whoops, it doesn’t say when to add the five eggs. Five does seem a lot but, gung ho, I bung them in with the rest of the ingredients.

Judi says: “The more you knead it generally the better it will be,” but I would need a cement mixer to trawl through the sludge I have created. Judi had warned against using too much liquid (this recipe asks for a lot) so I decide to add more flour to give it what I think is the right consistency.

I put the mixture into a previously warmed oven to help it rise and go about my business for a couple of hours before returning to find it swollen to double its size — rather like my sister in her third trimester of pregnancy.

This is good; the science is working. But I’m foiled again. There’s no mention of how to plait it. Unable to make it into any semblance of a shape because of its stickiness, I add yet more flour to give the dough some rubberiness and make two rather inelegant plaits.

I stick the two squat loaves in a hot oven. They smell really yeasty, a bit like stale beer, and as they get hotter they do not look especially appetising. After a couple of hours (the recipe says it should only take 25 minutes), they’ve lost their shape altogether and almost merged into one.

But, miraculously, they have grown to twice their original sizes. They bear a resemblance to bread which, for a virgin baker, is some sort of achievement.

The following night at Kiddish, I remove the cloth with trepidation. They still smell a bit yeasty, having been warmed up in the oven. But they don’t taste bad at all. Wholesome, sweet and soft enough (if not bakery light). My guests scoff it down with their soup.

Who says you need your mother to teach you everything?

Last updated: 5:12pm, February 18 2009