I love bread. I love to make it and I love to eat it. It is one of the most simple and yet fascinating foodstuffs we humans have been making and eating for thousands of years, and it has massively influenced technology, politics, economics, and art and culture the world over. I’ve kneaded my way through a variety of breads, doughs and bakes and yet, surprisingly, I’d not attempted a good old-fashioned challah until recently. Again, it was a bit like the beigel thing; why bother when you live so close to so many traditional Jewish bakeries, whose windows are lined with shelves of gorgeously golden, plaited, yolk-yellow loaves?
But now I live in a city where a pukkah challah is the proverbial needle in a haystack, as I discovered last Friday when I ventured to a wonderful bakery on the other side of the river Avon. This is the joint where I buy rich ryes and chewy baguettes and, having noticed that they baked challah on a Friday, I thought I’d give one a go for the shabbes table. Well, I would have forgiven them the emaciated rise, the palid-coloured crust and the extortionate price for a bit of a meh-sized loaf if it actually tasted like challah. But it didn’t. In fact, it didn’t even come close to the dear French brioche, as so many imitation, dairy-rich challahs do. I was, frankly, disappointed.
So I returned to the wonderful ‘Book of Jewish Food’ by Claudia Roden to see what she had to say about this revered loaf (and she always has something amazing to say). I also browsed the web for some traditional and not-so traditional challah recipes. Many, including my bread-making hero Dan Lepard’s, ashamedly contain diary, which is not traditional and not the way I wanted to go. (Although I’m partial to a bacon sarnie, I like to stick to my roots when it comes to cooking Jewish fare. Just as a supermarket chook doesn’t make a drop of zup anywhere near as good as a koshered boiler fowl, my challah has to be parve and pretty, pretty good.) But every breaded cloud has a silver crust and between the few recipes that had much to offer, I concocted my very own that makes two honeyed loaves to knock the yarmulke off anyone who tries it.
Zup – soup!
Parve – food that contains neither milk nor meat products (and can therefore be eaten with either milk or meat dishes)
Yarmulke – the skullcap worn by religious Jewish men