The Key to Perfect Challah

This post is dedicated to a fast and complete recovery for Michal bat Esther Miriam and Michal Leah bat Baila Hadas.

For the Shabbat after Pesach (Passover), many people have the custom of baking challah in the shape of a key or with a key baked into the dough. Called shlissel challah, these loaves symbolize the fact that G-d “holds the key” to our sustenance, and they are supposed to be a good omen for a successful livelihood. The sources for how and when this custom started are unclear, but its popularity has been growing in recent years. I have baked challah in the shape of a key a few times, not because I believe in omens, but because I find food-related traditions fun.

CIMG4043

6-strand challah loaves, left with sesame, right with zaatar

What I do believe in is prayer. I believe in a direct connection to G-d, Who is always available to listen. I also believe in mitzvot, following the commandments in the Torah. An older, more common challah tradition than shlissel challah is praying for others right before performing the mitzvah of separating challah from the dough. The merit of the mitzvah adds strength to our prayers. Think of it like a kid asking a parent for a treat after sharing his toys with his brother or after getting in a fight with his brother. As a mother, I can tell you when I’m more likely to say yes.

Usually, I bake challah about once a month. I use two kilograms (about 14 cups) of flour in order to have enough dough to separate challah with a blessing. (See the link above or here for more details about the mitzvah of separating challah.) This much dough makes at least seven loaves, so I freeze whatever we are not eating right away. I like to pray for others when I separate challah, but sometimes I am rushed, forget, or I have too many little fingers in the bowl with mine to concentrate on anything. What I have seen from my personal experience is that the times I pray for others, the challah tastes better.

The mitzvah of separating challah has become more special to me since I have been living in Israel. This is partly for a technical reason–I’ve been baking a lot more challah since I moved to Israel than when I lived in the US. Even before I was married, however, the mitzvah of separating challah intrigued me. I wrote a term paper about challah when I was nineteen and hadn’t even met my husband. Challah is one of the mitzvot that is dependent on the Land  of Israel. Unlike certain other agricultural mitzvot, it is also performed outside of Israel. However, in Israel, the mitzvah of separating challah is a Torah obligation, while outside Israel, it is a rabbinic obligation. For now. This is true while the majority of world Jewry lives outside of Israel, as the case is now. With the high assimilation rate in America and the relatively high birth rate in Israel, in addition to continued aliyah of Jews from around the world to Israel, the balance may soon be tipped, and the majority of the Jews in the world will live in Israel. This could have a practical effect on the mitzvah of taking challah worldwide!

The loaves pictured above were baked a few years ago, but it is the same recipe I always use and the one I’m sharing with you today. I actually haven’t even bought flour yet since Pesach ended. It is on my list of things to do in the next 24 hours. I’ll probably decide on the spot what shape to form my challah loaves tomorrow because the shape is not the true key to perfect challah.

Half-and-Half Challah
makes 5 large, 7 medium, or 9 small loaves

4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons dry yeast
1 kilogram whole wheat flour
1 kilogram sifted white flour
OR 2 kilograms 70% whole wheat flour or white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oil
4 eggs (3 for dough, plus 1 for brushing on top)
1/2-1 cup sugar
scant 2 tablespoons salt
sesame seeds, poppy seeds, zaatar, oats, flax seeds, or other toppings of choice.

Directions:

  1. Put 4 cups warm water in a medium bowl. I find the best way to get the perfect temperature is 1 cup boiling water and 3 cups cold water. Dissolve a spoonful of sugar in the water. Sprinkle 4 tablespoons of yeast over the surface of the water. Set aside to proof.
  2. Put flours into a large bowl and mix gently until basically combined.
  3. Make a well in the middle of the flour. Pour in oil, 3 eggs, sugar, and salt. The sugar measurement listed is not exact because sometimes I’m in a sweeter mood than  others. Use as much as you like.
  4. When the yeast mixture looks big and bubbly, pour it into the well. Mix. I start with a wooden spoon and move on to use my hands when a thick dough begins to form.
  5. Knead until all of the flour is in the dough, about 10 minutes. This is great upper body exercise. If you use 2 kilo whole wheat flour and the dough feels too hard and dry to knead, add a little water, just a spoonful at a time, until the dough softens and the flour disappears.
  6. Spray the sides of the bowl and top of the dough with cooking spray or brush with oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel until the dough doubles in size. (This is the point when I shoo my little helpers away because the dough needs to take a nap.) Time will vary significantly depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Usually, in my Israeli kitchen, it sits about 45 minutes in the summer and up to an hour and a half on a cold Jerusalem winter day.
  7. Punch the dough down. Pray for someone sick, childless, looking to get married, etc. Recite the blessing and separate a small handful of dough to be discarded by burning on the stove or double-wrapped and thrown out. Do not toss unwrapped dough into the bottom of your oven without consulting your rabbi.
  8. Form the dough into desired shape–braided loaves, round loaves, pull-apart loaves, or even key shapes. Place on baking pan. Cover with a towel again. Allow to rise for another half-hour to hour, depending on weather.
  9. Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Beat an egg with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of water. Brush on loaves with pastry brush. Sprinkle with seeds or other topping, if desired.
  10. Bake time will vary between 25 minutes and 40 minutes, depending on size of loaves. Remove from oven when they are golden-brown on top, like the loaves in the picture.
  11. Cool on a wire rack. Store in the freezer, tightly wrapped, for up to a month.
  12. Enjoy plain or with your favorite spreads.
    My favorite things to spread on challah: Poor Man’s Pesto and Avocado Salad

About israelisalad

I'm an American-Israeli mother who loves to make healthy food from fresh ingredients, on a budget and with limited time. My site is full of easy, healthy recipes and insights into life in Israel.
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10 Responses to The Key to Perfect Challah

  1. stanleyh says:

    You brought tears to my eyes, as well as educating me, so thank you very much. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your posts.  Your recipes look great too. At some point you should think about putting all of your posts, with recipes, together and printing them.

    Like

    • israelisalad says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I actually thought of writing a cookbook before I started the food blog, but in this digital age, food blog seemed like the way to go. I think I will get around to writing a paper cookbook eventually.

      Like

  2. Although I am not Jewish, I LOVE Passover! Everything about it. Granted, the families I have spent Passover with have not been totally orthodox, yet the sentiment behind the traditions were there.

    Thank you so much for the little things on making challah, like the prayers for people as you separate the dough. I do that when I am making sour dough, sandwich bread, dinner rolls…

    On prayer, itself: Any positive energy wished on anyone is a great thing. Not enough people send positive wishes to themselves, let alone others.

    Thank you so much for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • israelisalad says:

      Thank you for reading and for the kind words. Like many holidays, Passover is a time for family gatherings and tradition, two wonderful things.
      The power of prayer is truly amazing, a real gift, both for the one praying and the one being prayed for!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful challahs! Have a beautiful Shabbos and a wonderful year, with or without the “shlissel”!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anita says:

    Miriam, this is beautifully written and I know the sentiments are real. Keep writing, I enjoy it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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