Food Feature: Challah

Our Roots Weave Together Like Fresh-Baked Bread

This week, I challenged some of AARC’s expert bread makers to share their Challah secrets with the congregation – and they obliged! Everyone’s recipe has a special secret method that brings individuality to their loaves. However, just as the dough seamlessly weaves together, so does the common thread that binds these recipes. Every one of our star bakers brings love into their baking; that’s what makes their Challah so special.

Lori Lichtman brings love, meditation, and prayer into her baking. She learned from AARC member Jen Cohen!

My process includes meditating and bringing the Light of G-d through my crown, into my hands, into the dough and then I sing prayers into the dough. I sing Ahavah Rabah love prayer while kneading, then V’Erestich-Li Olam for binding to G-d while braiding, then Oseh Shalom for painting egg, and Peleg Elohim sprinkling the sesame seeds on top for abundance. I also sing healing prayers if needed or Shehekianu if it’s a celebration. Baking challah is a spiritual practice; it connects us to bring Heaven to Earth, connecting G-d with the Earth’s gifts of wheat and our role helping to transform these gifts to bring goodness to the world.

Lori has made many Challah variations, such as lavender for a gay or lesbian wedding, pumpkin challah for Challah-o-ween, and of course, Raisin Round for Rosh Hashanah.

Our next baker, Nancy Meadow, learned to bake Challah from her mother. Over time she has made it her own. Nancy says, “I use the word ‘recipe’ loosely here, as I vary it weekly, but this is a great starting place.”

There are as many challah recipes as there are challah bakers. You can vary the sweetness, the shape, the flour mix, or add-ins like spice, raisins, cherries, pumpkin, chocolate, etc. It is traditional for challah to be dairy-free (although I know some who use butter instead of oil). The eggs are a key ingredient, making this bread different than most others. The eggs should be the best you can find and should not be skimped on. This is how I make my basic weekly loaf.

Into bowl put, but do not stir:
   1 C warm/hot water
   1 Tbsp yeast
   2 tsp sugar
Wait for yeast to proof, then add
  ¼ C vegetable oil
  1/3 C sugar or honey (more for a sweeter loaf)
  2 tsp salt
  2 whole eggs plus one yolk

Stir until well integrated and then start adding flour ½ cup at a time. You can use all white bread flour or a mix of white and whole wheat. The more whole wheat you add, the more calories you burn while kneading. My weekly loaf has a good bit of whole wheat; my holiday loaves are 100% white, which is more traditional. Start with whole wheat and add white second. Once you have about 2.5 cups mixed in, let the batter sit for 20 minutes to let the yeast really soak into the flour. After this first rest, begin adding flour, no more than ½ cup at a time. Thoroughly integrate each new scoop of flour before adding more. At some point, you will need to remove it from the bowl and start kneading on a flat surface. Knead the dough for 12-18 minutes, adding flour as needed.  In total, plan to use about 5-6 cups of flour. 

Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with damp towel, place in cold oven with the light on for 1-3 hours. (The goal is a warm, dry place where the dough can rest without getting dried out.)
Shape the dough – a braid is traditional. I like a four or six strand braid.  There are a gazillion ways to shape challah; check Youtube or let me know if you want to talk about this more. Place loaves on a parchment paper covered baking sheet. Cover shaped challah with the damp towel and let rest for 30 minutes more.  
Brush loaves with a yolk-only wash, then sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds or both.
Bake at 325 for 25-35 minutes.  Loaves are done when the smell and look are right.

Fred Feinberg is the star Challah baker at AARC’s religious school, Beit Sefer. Fred says his home-baked Challah is the only bread his son will eat, so he makes it weekly!

For two loaves or one very large one:

1.5 cups slightly warm water
5 large egg yolks
1.5 teaspoons salt
1/3 – 1/2 cup oil (best: a mixture, up to half olive oil)
5.5 – 6 cups bread flour (depending on how dry your flour is; start with less and add more if it’s too sticky
1/3 – 1/2 cup sugar (best: mostly or entirely brown sugar, with a little honey if you like that)
2.5 – 3 teaspoons active dry yeast (less gives a slower rise, which gives better results, but takes longer)
whites from eggs for brushing

Mix water and sugar, then mix with egg yolks lightly. Then add oil (and stir just a bit at most). Put about four cups of the flour on top, then yeast, then mix a bit. Then put remaining flour, mixed with the salt, on top, and mix that in.

Knead for 10-15 minutes or, if you are sane, use a KitchenAid or bread machine. For KitchenAid, use the lowest setting. Do 1-2 minutes, then 1-2 minutes off, then on, for about 10-15 mins total. It is FINE to knead by hand for a minute, then rest 2 minutes, etc., for 4-5 cycles in total, so long as the dough is elastic: not sticky/wet, not very dry.
Cover, leave in a warm place for an hour, then punch down.

Divide in two. Shape each piece into a long rectangle, then slice each into three thinnish slices of about the same weight (a scale helps).
Roll out, then braid three ropes for each challah loaf. It doesn’t need to be perfect. [Large challah: six braids; watch a youtube video on how.]
Put on parchment paper, then into a loaf pan. Let sit and rise, covered with a towel, for another hour, or until the bread is just above the height of the loaf pan.
Brush liberally with the egg whites, mixed with a tiny bit of water and, if you like, some salt.

Put both in oven and bake in a preheated oven at 350-375 (make sure oven is below 400, though) for 30-32 minutes or so,* until the top is brown. Don’t overbake it! Top should be nice darkish brown, but not even slightly burnt; judge based on your oven, and cook a bit longer if the temperature is lower. [If making one large challah, do at least 32 minutes up to 35, depending on oven temperature.]

Either take out immediately or shut off oven and open door for 5 minutes or so. Let rest in pans for a while, maybe 10 minutes total. Then take out and put on rack to cool.
Take photos and put on Facebook!

Our last baker is – me (Gillian)!

Challah was the first bread that I learned how to make. Making good bread requires an understanding of the texture of a finished dough, and I found that learning this tactile sensation was easiest with Challah. Perhaps it was the generations of Challah baking coursing through my veins? My foolproof recipe comes from the book, Secrets of a Jewish Baker, by George Greenstein. My one tip for all you new Challah bakers: set up wine glasses around your loaves for the second rise, draping your tea towel over the glasses. This helps prevent your towel from sticking to the egg wash.

If you would like to watch a Challah-making video before you embark on your own baking adventure, Keshet is hosting a “Rainbow Challah Baking” class. The class takes place on Thursday, June 11th, at 4pm EDT. RSVP here.

Happy baking!

Us, God and Challah

touching the challah

“Everyone touch someone who is touching the challah!”

by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

It’s hard for me to resist an easy pun, so when I decided to teach a Shavuot session on challah and how this seemingly innocuous bread is rooted in a fraught relationship between the Jewish people and God, I couldn’t help myself; I named the session, “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and Challah.”

We began our tikkun leil session by each sharing a memory of challah from our childhoods. We then asked and attempted to answer the question: Why do we eat challah on Shabbat?

Looking through Numbers 15 (click here to access the entire source sheet/study guide), we learned that the mitzvah of challah comes from a commandment in the Torah to set aside a loaf of bread for God “as a gift.” And why 2 gift-loaves, and not just one? Because as the Israelites wandered in the desert, God “rained down bread” for them from the sky – aka manna – and on Fridays, two portions of manna fell, so that the Israelites would not have to gather food on Shabbat.

As we read through the manna story, it became clear that manna was 1. Given by God quite begrudgingly, and 2. That the Israelites mistrusted that God would continuously and consistently provide them with food. The episode of the manna quickly became a test of Israelite faith; the Israelites were ordered by Moses to gather only as much manna as they could eat each day; any manna stored for the following day would rot and become infested with maggots.

The rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras had a field day with this enmeshed relationship as the Israelites sought safety and comfort in sustenance and God used food to teach them a lesson. The rabbis considered a variety of lenses through which to understand the relationship:

Rabbi Tarfon imagined God gently extending a hand each morning to deliver the manna like dew, and he imagined that at the same time, God collected Israelite prayers and returned with them to heaven.

Rabbi Shimon wondered why the manna didn’t simply descend once a year, and suggested alternately that 1. God wanted closeness with the Israelites, and thought that their reliance on daily deliveries of manna would reinforce the bond; 2. God wanted to reassure the hungry Israelites that they would consistently be provided for; or 3. God didn’t want to burden the Israelites by making them carry a year’s worth of manna as they trekked through the desert.

So: what are your earliest memories of biting into this sweet and complicated bread? How does challah keep you anchored to God, your ancestors, or tradition?

AARC Shavuot 2018: Belonging, Behaving, Believing

“In 1934 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote his classic text Judaism As Civilization. Kaplan taught that there are three ways of identifying with a religious community: by believing, by behaving, and by belonging…And it’s true that no matter what Jews believe, and no matter how Jews behave, there is an underlying, fundamental and intrinsic interconnection that ties us together in a common history and present reality.”

–Rabbi Joe Klein

Celebrate Shavuot with a Night of Learning

Saturday May 19, 7-10 pm at the JCC

Choose from 4 study sessions taught by AARC community members

Eat cheesecake and other dairy sweets

Bring a box of grain to donate to Food Gatherers

Close the evening with Havdallah

7:00 PM:  Gather

7:15-8:15:  Jonas Higbee: “Building a Community Response to Fascism: Lessons from Richard Spencer’s Visit to MSU” (‘Behaving’)

7:15-8:15:  Clare Kinberg: “Shavuot4BlackLives: Jewish Views on Reparations” (‘Behaving’)

8:15-8:30:  Cheesecake Break

8:30-9:30:  Etta King Heisler: “Belonging in America:  What is Belonging and How Does it Broaden, Limit, Deepen, or Otherwise Define Our Community?” (‘Belonging’)

8:30-9:30:  Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner:  “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and…Challah?” (‘Believing’)

9:30-10:00:  Havdallah

Thoughts on Beit Sefer, and delicious challah recipe

By Leila Bagenstos

challahThis year, I helped Morah Sharon Alvandi with the Beit Sefer G’dolim class. The class had eight kids, ages 10-12. We did a lot of things over the year: learning about Jewish communal responsibilities and communities around the world, improving Hebrew skills, and mastering the core Shabbat morning prayers.

The kids worked really hard to learn about the Shabbat service’s structure and prayers, and yesterday, they led the central part of the AARC’s Second Saturday service.  The afternoon before, we gathered to bake for the kiddush that followed the service. We made brownies and cupcakes, and I showed the kids how to bake challah.

Here’s the recipe:


  • 4 (.25 ounce) packages quick-rise yeast
  • 4 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup pareve margarine (but I use butter instead), melted
  • 5 eggs
  • 12 cups bread flour, or as needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds (but I don’t use these)
  • Prep time: 40 minutes / Cook time: 30 minutes  / Ready in 2 hours, 40 minutes

  • NOTE:  I usually only make half of this recipe.  It makes 4 loaves.  if you make half, you can still make 2 loaves.
  1. Sprinkle the yeast over the water in a large bowl, and stir gently to moisten the yeast. Stir in salt, sugar, margarine [but I use butter], and 4 eggs, and beat well. Gradually mix in the flour, 1 cup at a time, up to 12 cups, until the dough becomes slightly tacky but not wet. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Grease baking sheets, or line them with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Cut the bread dough into 4 equal-sized pieces [I make a half recipe and make only two loaves]. Cut each piece into thirds for 3-strand braided loaves. Working on a floured surface, roll the small dough pieces into ropes about the thickness of your thumb and about 12 inches long. Ropes should be fatter in the middle and thinner at the ends. Pinch 3 ropes together at the top and braid them. Starting with the strand to the right, move it to the left over the middle strand (that strand becomes the new middle strand.) Take the strand farthest to the left, and move it over the new middle strand. Continue braiding, alternating sides each time, until the loaf is braided, and pinch the ends together and fold them underneath for a neat look. Repeat for the remaining loaves.
  4. Place the loaves onto the prepared baking sheets, and let rise until double in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  5. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Whisk 1 egg with vanilla extract in a small bowl, and brush the loaves with the egg wash. Sprinkle each loaf with about 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds. [I skip the sesame seeds]
  6. Bake in the preheated oven until the tops are shiny and golden brown, about 30 minutes. [I’ve found this is actually closer to 25 minutes.] Let cool before serving.


Challah Rising

challah risingAARC member Lori Lichtman is launching a new baking company, Challah Rising Baking Company: “Blessing the World One Challah at a Time,” on March 20 (the Spring Equinox, Solar Eclipse, Super (New) Moon). Lori has been baking challah every Friday since October 25, 2008. She learned from Jen Cohen and continues a tradition that was passed on to her by her father and grandfather. Her grandfather, from Hungary, became a baker when he came to the U.S. Lori uses local ingredients that connect her challah to our very own Michigan farms. Lori’s challah stands alone as she infuses the dough with blessing chants of love (Ahava Raba), Peace (Oseh Shalom), Abundance (Peleg Elohim), and Connecting to G-d’s light (V’eristich li). She does a meditation before kneading each batch of dough, connecting G-d’s light through her crown, heart, hands and into the dough. You can also order special blessings for pre-ordered loaves. Lori has been in prayer circles and uses the challah baking as one of her spiritual practices. She has taught workshops and after her first workshop stood in her garden and the inspiration came to start the business. Lori will be selling her challah (gluten free too!) on Fridays at Argus Farm Stop on Liberty. Please come out to try the deliciousness and blessings! We will also have a Challah Rising loaf at our Fourth Friday Shabbat on March 27, the last Shabbat before Pesach. Challah-leuia!

Recipe: Chavurah Challah

By Jennifer Cohen

[Note: Jen Cohen bakes challah for most of our Fourth Friday Shabbats. She says “I think this is the most current recipe.  I confess that I change it all the time.”] 

  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water, separated
  • pinch of sugar
  • 3 large or extra large eggs
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 5–6 cups flour (I typically use 1-2 cups whole wheat)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • cornmeal
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten with a little bit of water
  • sesame or poppy seeds
  1. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat, set aside to cool a bit.
  2. Pour about a tablespoon of butter into a large bowl and swirl it around to coat the inside.
  3. Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup of the warm water, with a pinch of sugar and set aside to proof.
  4. In a stand mixer or other large bowl, beat together eggs, honey and melted butter. Add remaining 1 cup warm water and mix well. Add yeast mixture and blend well. Add flour, with salt, 1 cup at a time, blending well after each addition until dough is thick enough to work by hand.
  5. Spoon dough onto floured work surface and knead for several minutes. If you’d like to add raisins (1-1 1/2 cups), here is where you would incorporate them, along with enough additional flour to make a smooth elastic dough.
  6. Rub the top of the dough in the buttered bowl, then flip the dough over and nestle inside. Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and place in a warm place until doubled in size. I let this part go on for quite a while—like 5 hours or so.
  7. When ready to bake, line a baking tray with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Set oven to 350 degrees.
  8. For the Chav, I divide dough into 3 pieces and roll each into a long rope. I braid the ropes and then curve the braid into a circle, pinching the ends together. For a smaller gathering, I divide the dough in half and then make 2 smaller braided loaves.
  9. Cover with that clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 40 minutes.
  10. Brush the top and sides of the challah with egg wash and sprinkle with seeds if desired. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, depending on loaf size, until golden brown.

**Pumpkin Challah for Challoween: Replace 1/2 the butter and 1 of the eggs with a cup of pumpkin puree. Add a little pumpkin pie spice to the dough.

**Apple and Honey Challah for Rosh Hashanah: Add 2 finely diced granny smith apples to regular challah. Brush the top with 1 stick melted butter and 1/2 cup honey, before baking and again when just out of the oven.

**Thanksgiving Challah: same as Challoween Challah, but add 1 cup of dried cranberries. Top with toasted pumpkin seeds after the egg wash.

Challah Musings

By Jennifer Cohen

[Note: Jen’s delicious challah, fresh from the oven, its smell wafting though the room at the close of Friday night services, has been an AARC tradition for almost 20 years.]

I used to say that I came into this religion through the kitchen. Growing up in Ohio, I knew very, very few Jews. Sure, I read the All of a Kind Family books, but I never imagined that any of that (kosher dishes! dressing up for something called Purim!) was still going on. I read those stories and absorbed that information the same way I did Little House on the Prairie–historical fiction. Then I moved to NY, met Adam, fell in love and a bit through the looking glass. I got a crash course on keeping kosher and the relentless holiday schedule.


This challah was not made by Jen, but it was made with Jen’s special recipe

Soon I was checking hot dog bun packages to see if they were parve and trying to figure out how to make a dinner without butter. I learned to make latkes; Adam was not impressed with my first attempts. I think he said something like “those look like bird’s nests”. I found a kosher butcher, made peace with the idea of no bacon or shrimp, and got a cheap second set of dishes. It was fairly easy to do this on Long Island. Things were set up there.

When we moved to MI, I had to search and hunt to find some of my, by then, staples. Missing some of the good bakeries, I decided it was time to learn to bake challah. I consulted several cookbooks (this was before you could go on-line!) and gave it a shot, every Friday. There were some success and some dismal failures (a potato challah that slumped off the baking sheet). I persevered and came up with a version of what I bake today. The trick was in the rising time. Earlier recipes had the rising time set at short intervals–1 hour, then punch down, then rest 40 minutes, then bake. At that time, I had two busy little boys and couldn’t sit around and wait for dough to rise. I used to make the dough, take it along with us to the park. After an hour, making sure the boys were engaged in an important excavation in the sandbox, I’d punch it down and pop it into 2 loaf pans. (I had a little work station set up in the back of the mini-van.) Then, 1/2 an hour later, we’d drive home and bake. Warm challah for teatime and a fresh loaf for dinner.

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