Great Big Challah Bake: Synagogue continues tradition

CHARLESTON (AP) — Using a plastic dough scraper, Melissa “Missy” Rubin divided a kneaded ball of dough into four parts, rolled each into a thick strand and started to braid.

Noting that she’s left handed, she pinched the pieces together and took the furthest strand from the left and began — “Over two, under one, repeat. Over two, under one. Over two, under one,” until the dough turned into a beautifully woven loaf of challah bread.

“In a Jewish home — the perfect Jewish home — you would make this every Friday for the weekend,” Rubin said, with a laugh.

Challah, an egg-based bread made without butter or milk, is usually served on Saturdays — Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest — to represent the double-portion of manna that fell from Heaven and fed the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.

The braided bread is a Jewish holiday staple, as well. During Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the challah are made round to symbolize a continuation of life.

The bread is also a tradition at Hanukkah, which begins at sunset on Sunday.

Ahead of the holiday, B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston participated in The Great Big Challah Bake, an annual international event in which congregations across the globe bake challah in late October.

For $10, B’nai Jacob provided the tools and ingredients to make two loaves of challah, and led attendees through the process, explaining the significance behind each ingredient and the technique of braiding the bread.

Starting with the mixing bowl, symbolic of the home, the group began by combining dry ingredients.

Flour, the first ingredient, represents sustenance in livelihood and in relationships with others.

Sugar represents the sweetness and goodness in life, and the recipe reminds one to “always add a little extra.”

Salt represents discipline and rebuke, as well as purification, and is “hidden in the flour to remind oneself not to be overly critical.”

Yeast enables the dough to rise and represents growth and expansion.

Water represents Torah and life. Just as a person cannot live without water, the Jewish faith requires Torah. Water also represents kindness.

Eggs represent fertility and the renewal of the life cycle and the potential of what is about to “hatch.”

Oil represents abundances and blessing, as well as essence, with the belief that the more one is challenged, the more pure they become. Oil was also used to anoint kings. When pouring the oil, a person is supposed to “anoint” each member of their family by name and pray for their specific needs.

As a person “unifies” these ingredients and begins to knead the dough, they are to use the time to pray for the needs of themselves, their families and the world.

While it’s often referred to as the whole loaf, truly, the word “challah” is meant to symbolize a portion of the bread which is set aside for offering before braiding.

Once the dough has risen, the ball is separated into fourths for a four-braid or thirds for a three-braid. Each piece is then shaped into a rope and woven into a long braid, then brushed with egg wash and baked in the oven.

Rubin can whip together a braid in a matter of seconds.

Despite making the craft appear effortless, she didn’t grow up making challah.

“My mother was a really good cook. She made a lot of Jewish meals but not bread,” Mary said. “I grew up in New York and we had a lot of great Jewish bakeries. It’s like, why reinvent the wheel?”

It was only after she moved to Charleston decades ago that she learned to make challah herself.

Still, she rarely makes it at home, except for around the holidays.

Many women at the event shared a similar story.

Living in large Jewish communities, many grocery stores sold loaves of the bread frozen and ready to be baked in the oven. When Dutchess Bakery on the West Side was open, many purchased their kosher bread from the shop.

Variations of challah can be served around the holidays. Some prefer it topped with sesame or poppy seeds.

Several recipes were provided in a challah cookbook given to those at the event. It included recipes for sweet versions of the bread, like “Halloween Candy Challah,” ”Lemon Poppy Seed Challah” and “Rainbow Challah.” For a more savory taste, recipes suggested adding potatoes or spinach and feta.

Regardless of the recipe, however, each included the symbolic ingredients and is meant to be served in the signature challah braid.

While not everyone has a symbolic reason to prepare challah, there’s a secret that might encourage a few bakers to try a loaf or two this holiday season. Several of those in attendance at The Great Challah Bake whispered: the sweet braided bread also makes a lovely French toast.


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