Following the last two enriched (and flavorful) breads in the BBA Challenge, the sixth bread in Peter Reinhart’s book brings us to the Jewish celebratory bread, Challah. I had seen this braided, glistening loaf many times before at the bakery close to the office where I stopped to get coffee, wondering if I should get a slice of that brioche in the display, until I read its tag. Its unfamiliar name was enough to stop a pre-caffeinated me from expanding my standard breakfast choices beyond a butter or chocolate croissant, and so it was that Challah and I never really got to know each other until the summer of 2009.
Although this bread dough falls under Reinhart’s “Enriched” category, it is a lot less so than other breads such as Artos, the Greek Celebration bread or Cinnamon Buns which contain either butter or milk. Neither are present in Challah, due to the considerations regarding milk and meat in Jewish law, but it will always be garnished with an array of poppy or sesame seeds symbolizing manna falling from heaven.
I was very excited about my first bread braiding attempt (cue applause) and decided to undertake the double-braid, celebratory version which is usually prepared for weddings, Bar and Bar Mitzvahs. The braiding process wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be – my biggest challenge was in rolling out the dough into even lengths as it had settled quite comfortably into the boules I had left it in to rest. Once the braiding was done, I realized how I was blessed with a very eager and enthusiastic (i.e. rising) dough which started out looking harmless enough until it showed its true ambitions as a post-modern work of art in its final hour of proofing. The top braid was slowly but surely slipping off its cushiony base, helpless against the pull of gravity (or the little grains of yeast hard at work, or both). There was nothing else I could do but to send it to the oven and hope for the best.
Well, I guess it didn’t come out all too badly. Like any Surrealist work of art that shocks and disgusts at first sight, a longer contemplation brings deeper understanding and appreciation for its form, meaning and innate beauty. It took a couple of pictures from various angles for me to appreciate that all in all, this loaf actually turned out pretty well!
In terms of taste, Challah definitely needs to be accompanied with a spread of some sort or used as a base for another dish, like a french toast for example. I found it to be surprisingly bland, despite its lovely fragrance while in the oven. Being a fan of simple preparations, I was very much content with piling on the kaya – a delicious jam made from coconuts, eggs and pandan – topped with a dollop of salted butter, all washed down with an espresso, for a perfect start to the day.
Next up: Ciabatta!!! But first, read these Challah Tales: