Challah? Me, a nice Irish-Catholic girl from Boston—what do I know about challah?
It was Halley again. “Let’s put up some recipes for the Jewish high holidays. We need a new section on the recipe site. What should we put in there?
“Cheesecake,” said Susan. “And honey cake. And I have this wicked good potato crust pie…”
Halley looked at me. I thought quickly. What do I know about Jewish cooking? Well, when I was a kid we ate at a deli called Jack and Marion’s. It was a huge, noisy place, and smelled like fried potatoes and sour pickles. It also had the biggest menu—I mean, physically big—that I’d ever seen; it was probably 2 feet tall.
But what was on that menu? I racked my brain, looking for Jewish-high-holiday recipe inspiration. All I remember is bagels and cream cheese, since that was all I was brave enough to try. My parents ate pastrami. Sometimes a Reuben—ewww, sauerkraut! Icky pink salad dressing! Nothing really bakeable came to mind.
“P.J.?” Halley inquired. “What do you think?”
Um um um…. “How about challah?” I blurted out, offering the first Jewish baked good that came to mind. Challah—I know, it’s a braid. It’s shiny and very yellow.
“Great! How about apple challah? It sounds SO good. Or raisin challah. Oh, this’ll be good!” Halley smiled, Susan smiled. I smiled… tentatively.
Luckily, I’ve actually made challah before—once. The recipe came from one of my very best friends in the world, Lora Brody, whose written the funniest food books ever, including Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, and Indulgences. Lora got the recipe from her mother, Millie Apter. So I figure, this is the real deal.
I look up Millie's challah recipe, and remember—oh yeah, whole wheat pastry flour. Variation on the real deal. How will that go over for the Jewish high holidays? Aren’t they, like, all about tradition? Surely I can take Millie’s recipe and make it traditional, I thought. I'll switch it to all-purpose flour. And then make it into apple challah. And raisin challah.
After a few false starts—including a taste test by a visiting crew of Israeli videographers who pronounced my efforts “too moist; should be drier and stringier”—I came up with three challah recipes that everyone endorsed, including Andrea, my fellow test baker who knows the intricacies of kosher cooking; and fellow Web team members Janet and Jim, both of whom know Jewish cooking inside and out.
And Halley, who started all of this in the first place.
Once again, Halley, you nudged me to go somewhere I wouldn't have gone. You've successfully broadened my Jewish baking horizons beyond bagels and cream cheese.
Just don't ask me to make a flourless Passover cake again.
Happy Rosh Hashanah, everyone. Let’s bake some apple challah.
Let's start by putting the dough ingredients into a mixer bowl. Oil and eggs, rather than butter, give this loaf its tender texture.
Mix with the flat beater till everything comes together...
...then knead for about 7 minutes, till soft and elastic. The surface of the dough may look a bit rough; that's OK.
Or the dough may leave a film around the side of the bowl. That's OK, too.
Place in the rising container of your choice, cover...
And let rise till doubled. This should take about 2 hours, more or less.
Next, prepare apples by coring, cutting into chunks, and tossing in cinnamon and sugar. No need to peel them.
Flatten the dough into a rectangle about the size of a standard sheet of paper, and pile half the apples in a strip that's just a bit off-center.
Fold one edge of the dough over the apples.
Then pile the rest of the apples atop the folded-over dough.
Fold the other edge of the dough over the apples. You've now made a letter fold. Pinch the edges closed. Though, with what comes next, you'll wonder why you bothered!
This begins to get messy. Don't stress; it's supposed to be rather haphazard. Don't be afraid to lose control of this apple-stuffed dough; it'll all work out in the end, like life usually does. Cut the dough in half crosswise.
Then cut it in half lengthwise.
Cut each lengthwise piece into 8 pieces. The entire piece of dough should be cut into 16 pieces.
Pick the pieces up, and put them in a lightly greased 9” round cake pan. The dough will be slippery; the apples will slide out. No worries—just tuck any errants apple chunks in among the dough crevices.
Ah, here we are. That wasn't so hard, was it? Cover the pan, and let the dough rise for about an hour.
When nicely risen, the dough will just crest the rim of your pan, if your pan is 2” deep (as it should be). If you have a shallower pan, you might consider using a springform pan. Or a 10” round cake pan. Or a 9” square pan.
Just before putting the challah into the oven, brush it with egg wash made from a whole egg and water. Sprinkle with coarse white sugar, if desired. Some folks like this bread with sugar; some prefer drizzling honey over it once it's done.
Put the challah in the preheated oven, on a lower shelf. The top browns very deeply, and if it's too close to the oven's upper element, it'll char.
Bake the challah for about 55 minutes, till it's light golden brown all over, and a darker brown—even black—in some spots.
Here's a challah sprinkled with coarse sugar.
Very nice texture, huh? See what those Israeli videographers mean by “stringy”? That's a good thing. This bread is nicely moist; the apples provide both flavor, and a nice variation in texture. All in all—a good loaf. To serve, cut in slices, and drizzle with honey.
Buy vs. Bake:
Buy: Macrina Bakery, Seattle: Plain Challah, 23¢/ounce
Bake at home: Apple Challah, 7¢/ounce