About a year ago, I came up with a goal for myself: to participate in a Shabbat dinner every week, just like I did growing up, but to spend them all with friends.
I now have regular invites for dinner, but they all come with a catch: I have to bring the homemade challah.
My plan worked! Sort of.
Bread needs nothing more than flour, yeast, salt and water, and simple changes in time and proportion will change your finished loaf. Challah, however, is supposed to be a luxury item—only the best for the Shabbat meal. Add eggs, oil and some sugar or honey, and you have a flavorful bread that celebrates the end of the week.
Special shapes and different braids signify different holidays or times of the year. A three-, four- or six-strand braided loaf is traditional, and round challahs are seen every year at Rosh Hashanah to signify the continuation of time. I’m not sure what it is about the smell of warm challah, but it seems to match every kind of meal.
But why not make your challah fun? Just because it’s not the traditional shape and recipe doesn’t mean it’s not acceptable for your holiday table. I started with a basic recipe over a year ago and made several changes to make it my own. Now I customize my creations based on seasons and events. I’ve added mini chocolate chips, sweet currants and chopped apple chunks.
To celebrate spring, I made a fresh herb loaf with handfuls of finely chopped herbs from my rooftop garden. We enjoyed summer fruit with a homemade peach preserve challah, one of my favorites, and the coming fall will see apple butter and cinnamon. A rainbow challah was the perfect addition to the table when we read the story of Noah. After that one, I thought, why not color and shape the dough into the rings for an Olympic challah?
It may be convenient to stop by your bakery or grocery store to pick up your weekly or holiday loaf, but challah is not difficult to make on your own. A mixer or bread maker will help, but it is simple enough to do all by hand. In total, you’ll need about five to six hours, but most of it is hands-off as the dough rises on its own. You’ll assemble and knead the dough for about 20 minutes, punch it down, shape it and bake it. You can get some work done or run errands in between steps. Most recipes make two loaves, as we typically celebrate Shabbat with two loaves on the table.
And it should also go without saying that leftover challah makes the best French toast.