1976 : Challah
By AMANDA HESSER
B & R Artisan Bread, a bakery with a devoted following in Framingham, Mass., occupies a space that was for decades a Jewish bakery well known for its challah. “The baker, he actually mispronounced it,” Michael Rhoads, the owner of B & R, said. “He called it ‘holly,’ not challah. So all of his old customers come in and ask for holly bread.”
Rhoads, who is known for his crisp baguettes and rustic pain levain, is not a challah maker, but when I gave him a recipe for challah that ran in The Times in 1976, he was delighted: the perfect excuse to finally master it. The old recipe came from Sarah Schecht, a homemaker in Bensonhurst with a gift for bread-making. In the article by Craig Claiborne, Schecht’s friend described the bread in colorful terms: “Her challah has a texture to rival that of the finest spongecakes. It is airborne, light as a zephyr, delicate as eiderdown.”
The recipe, which Claiborne wrote out in great detail, creates a soft, velvety dough — and so much of it that it recalls the “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy bakes a loaf of bread that shoots right out of the oven and pins her against the kitchen cabinets. But what a beautiful loaf it makes! Schecht’s shaping technique, which sounds nightmarishly finicky — you must braid eight strands of dough — is easy once you get going and makes for an intricately woven, cinnamon-scented loaf the size of a skateboard. (Plenty to eat fresh, and plenty for French toast later.) After removing the extra rack in his oven so the bread would fit, Rhoads declared the challah “wonderful,” but he was not going to be outbaked.
Rather than improve the loaf, he rethought its construction. Most challah contains fat added directly to the dough. Rhoads chose to use butter as you would in puff pastry, chilling it and layering it in, “so you get these really eye-popping layers from the braid,” he said. “It will be more of an after-meal challah than a before-meal.” Rhoads’s version is stunning, a peony of challahs, with petals of sweet, puffy dough, braided and shaped in a taut circle. The perfect any-time-of-day holly.
2008: Challah Revisited
By Michael Rhoads, the owner of B & R Artisan Bread in Framingham, Mass.
10 ½ ounces (about 2 cups plus 1½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour
1¼ ounces (about 2½ tablespoons) sugar
0.15 ounces (about 1½ teaspoons) kosher salt
0.15 ounces (about 1½ teaspoons) dry active yeast
2 large eggs
1 stick (½ cup) plus 2 tablespoons butter
1. About 9 hours before baking, work together the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, 2 tablespoons butter and ¼ cup plus 1½ teaspoons water in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix for 5 minutes at medium speed until it forms a smooth ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate 6 to 8 hours.
2. Set the remaining butter at room temperature for a few minutes. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough into an oval, then roll into a 5-by-9-inch rectangle. Put on a baking sheet and freeze for 30 minutes.
3. Using a rolling pin, flatten the butter between wax or parchment papers into a 4-by-5-inch rectangle. If too soft, refrigerate for 5 minutes. Remove dough from freezer. Lay the butter on one end of the dough. Cut the dough in half. Place the side without butter on top of the side with it and gently press on the edges to seal. Roll into a 6-by-12-inch rectangle. Fold into thirds. Cover with plastic and chill for 20 minutes.
4. Roll the dough into an 8-by-10-inch rectangle. Trim the edges to make it neat; reserve trimmings. Slice the rectangle lengthwise into 9 strips
½ inch wide. Group the strands into 3 groups of 3. Gather the tops of the three strands of each group and pinch to seal. Braid each group separately, pinching the ends to keep each braid intact. On a sheet pan, create one large ring using the three braids. Roll the trimmings to 1/8-inch thick and, using cookie cutters, make 3 pretty shapes. Lay the shapes at the seams between the 3 braids and press gently. Brush the ring with water. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
5. Bake the loaf for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for 10 minutes more or until golden and a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reaches 180 degrees. Cool on the pan, then dust with confectioners’ sugar. Makes 1 loaf.
Michael Rhoads’s recipe, while undoubtedly absolutely delicious, is not challah (Food: Recipe Redux, Sept. 28). Challah, a ceremonial bread eaten for Sabbath and holiday meals, must be parve, that is, without dairy or meat ingredients. This is because of the biblical prohibition against mixing dairy- and meat-based foods in the same meal. Most major holiday meals feature some kind of meat, and the bread needs to be compatible. So basically no butter in challah, unless you want to call it coffee cake.
Michael Rhoads incorrectly believes that “cholly” (not “holly”) is a mispronunciation of challah. In Yiddish, the word is pronounced HUH-leh, which in English became cholly. A generation ago, synagogues and Hebrew schools adopted the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew words, so most Jews now eat challah on Shabbat. But during my childhood, we ate cholly on Shabbos.
Joseph L. Ruby
Silver Spring, Md.