Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Mother's Hallah

Hallah (aka challah) is the traditional Jewish bread that is eaten during the Sabbath (shabat).  Hallah (חלה) means "loaf" in Hebrew.  Lechem (לחם) means "bread".  Because you are forbidden from doing any work during shabat, you must cook all of your food beforehand.

The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) make this more complicated than most people realize; specifically, you can't mix dairy and meat together.  Food that is neither dairy nor meat is called "parve".  Parve foods include all fruits, vegetables, eggs, and fish.  (Yes, I know that fish is the meat of an animal but we're dealing with 6,000 year old dietary laws here.)  To make sure that you can eat hallah with whatever else you eat on shabbat, the recipe is usually parve.  That's why a lot of recipes and cookbooks refer to hallah as an "egg bread", because the binder in the dough is egg without any dairy.

My mother baked her own hallah throughout my childhood.  The hallah that came from the bakeries was weird, really puffy and the crust was dry and dark.  My mother would also put in honey and raisins for holidays like Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year).  Sometimes my father would make french toast with the leftover hallah for breakfast on Sunday.

My mother was like a cooking magician - ingredients would get tossed into a bowl and after some stirring suddenly braided loaves appeared!  My favourite part was getting to punch down the hallah dough after the second rise.  It would deflate with a big whoosh of air when I punched it as hard as I could.  It was a big treat.  (We weren't allowed to watch television, in case that isn't clear from this story.)

I can't remember my mother ever cooking anything from a recipe that wasn't in her Betty Crocker binder or the Joy of Cooking.  If it wasn't in there, she somehow knew how to make it.  It really was magic to me when I was a kid.

Neither of my grandmothers could cook.  I do not come from a family where the rosy-cheeked grandmother bakes cookies for the beloved grandkids.  My Italian grandmother taught me how to win when you bet on the ponies (very useful skill!).

My mother taught herself to cook by working her way through both volumes of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Her recipes were memorized because she had spent years tweaking them and adjusting ingredients in incremental amounts.  This resulted in recipes that work consistently and taste great but which have some odd instructions:

My mother: now you add in exactly one-half of two-thirds a cup of oil.
Me: don't you just mean one-third of a cup?
My mother: No!  It must be one-half of two-thirds!
Me: ...okay.

Tips: hallah is a twice-risen bread.  The first rise is when the yeast is proofed and the second rise is when the dough rises.

To make sure that the dough rises, preheat the oven to 200 F while you're mixing the ingredients together.  When it reaches temperature, turn it off but leave the door closed.  It will cool down a little bit while you're working.  Once you're ready to put the dough in a dark, warm place, the oven will be nice and warm.

Sometimes yeast is dead and just doesn't rise.  Make sure that you've got foamy yeast before you pour it into the rest of the ingredients.  If the yeast is dead and didn't foam, don't use yeast from that batch of packets or that jar again.  You'll need to get some new yeast.

The sugar is only to give the yeast something to eat as it rises and it is converted by the yeast before it goes into the dough.  I've never tried replacing the sugar with something like stevia but my guess is that it wouldn't work.  In any case, the carbs in this recipe come from the flour and not the small amount of sugar.

You can replace the flour with whole wheat flour if you want.  I suggest making it once with the original recipe so that you can get a feel for what the dough is like.  Then if you use whole wheat flour you can adjust the result to feel right.

Don't skip the egg wash.  To make an egg wash, crack one egg into a little bowl and pour some milk in (maybe about 1/4 cup to start with).  Mix it together with a fork until the consistency is liquidy.  Brush the egg wash over the top of the hallah with a pasty brush.  If you don't have a pastry brush, you can use your hands instead.  The longer you bake the hallah, the darker the egg wash will become.

My Mother's Hallah


2 tablespoons (2 packages) quick-rising yeast*
4 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup warm tap water
2 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour

* same as fast-acting yeast. You want the yeast that goes quickly. The label will have some kind of phrase with either "quick" or "fast".


Dissolve the yeast in a little bowl by mixing it with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and pouring in the warm tap water. Cover with a flat dish and put aside. It should be foamy by the time you want to use it, so if it hasn't become foamy, repeat these steps with new yeast.

In a big bowl, beat 2 eggs, pour in the oil and mix. Stir in the foamy yeast mixture, 2 tablespoons of sugar, the salt, and slowly pour in 2 cups of flour, mixing constantly. Slowly add as much of the other 2 cups of flour as you can. Form the dough into a ball, cover with a towel, and let sit in a warm, dark place for 1 and 1/2 hours.

Take the dough out of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. When dough has risen, punch it down, split it into two halves, and roll it out on a lightly floured board: take each of the two halves and split it into three sections. Roll out the three balls into three ropes with your hands, like we did with clay when we were kids. Pinch three of the sections together at one end. Braid it into a hallah and pinch the far ends together, tuck the ends under to hide the pinches, and brush with a little egg wash before putting it in the oven. Repeat with the second set of ropes. Sesame seeds can be sprinkled on top if desired. Bake for about 20 minutes.


1. Rolls: divide the dough in half, roll each half out into a circle on a lightly floured surface. Cut 16 wedges in each circle (i.e. cut in half, then quarters, then eighths). Place a chocolate chip or a berry (or both or neither, etc.) at the wide edge of each wedge. Roll from the wide edge into the skinny end in the middle of the circle. Press the tip of the wedge into the roll to make sure it stays. Bake at 400 F for 10 minutes.

2. Stuffed bread: Saute garlic and one finely chopped onion. Roll out the dough into one large circle. Spread the sauteed mixture over the dough, leaving one inch clear at the edge. Add any other vegetables to the mixture if desired (e.g. olives, spinach). Roll the dough into a long cylinder. Wrap in a circle, and press the edges together. Bake at a max 350 F for 20 to 25 minutes.

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