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Exploring Challah: Fables, Facts, and 10 Recipes for the Famous Jewish Bread

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Everything about challah, even the size and shape of the loaf, has significance.

Everything about challah, even the size and shape of the loaf, has significance.

The Meaning of Challah

In Hebrew, challah means “portion." This refers to the Biblical command that the first fruits, even the first portion of your dough, should be given to the Lord.

Of the first of your dough you shall set aside a cake (challah) as an offering; as the offering of the threshing-floor, so you shall set it aside.

— Bamidbar (Book of Numbers) 15:20

For the Gentile, challah is a fragrant, braided yeast bread, but for those of the Jewish faith, it is so much more. This egg-rich bread is steeped in tradition and symbolism; to understand challah bread is to glimpse into the heart and soul of the Jewish faith.

Everything about challah, even the size and shape of the loaf, has significance.

  • The ropes of dough that form the braided shape a representative of arms intertwined in love.
  • Three ropes symbolize truth, peace, and justice.
  • Each braid forms 12 humps recalling the 12 tribes of Israel.
  • The round loaves created for Rosh Hashanah are meant to symbolize “eternity,” with no beginning or end.
  • For Yom Kipper, elongated loaves are baked. These “ladders” reminding those who eat it to ascend to great heights.
  • Purim is a holiday which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, an Achaemenid Persian Empire ruler. The Purim loaves are triangular, representing Haman’s ears.
  • During Shavuot (a holiday celebrating the revelation of the Five Books of the Torah) two long loaves laid side by side reflect the 10 Commandments inscribed on two tablets.
  • The dusting of sesame or poppy seeds on the finished loaves is the manna that fell from Heaven with the dew of the morning. A white napkin covers each loaf and represents that dew.

Is it any wonder then that the baking of challah is a special occasion? It is a task that takes much time—the dough is mixed and kneaded until smooth and elastic. Time passes as the mix of flour, yeast, and milk proof (rise) until doubled in size. Then more time is required to knead once again, shape, rise, and then finally bake.

Following are ten recipes for challah; the ingredients and methods may vary but there is one constant in the making of challah. Each loaf is filled with love.

Traditional Challah

Traditional Challah

1. Traditional Challah

There is nothing like the aroma of a loaf of bread baking in your oven. This loaf of traditional challah bread is rich and golden. Before baking brush the braids with an egg wash to create a deeply browned, shiny crust.

2. Cheese and Chive Challah

The traditional yeasted egg bread is enriched even more by adding cheese to the dough. I love the flavor of fontina, but Gruyere or another Swiss cheese would also work. This recipe for cheese and chive challah was originally published in Cooking Light magazine, November 2010.

Pretzel Challah

Pretzel Challah

3. Pretzel Challah

Did you know that you can make soft, chewy pretzels in your own home? Tori explains the process and provides photographs of each step in making a pretzel challah. She bakes two small loaves, but if this is your first try at making pretzels, you might heed her advice and shape individual rolls instead.

Cinnamon-Walnut Challah

Cinnamon-Walnut Challah

4. Cinnamon-Walnut Stuffed Challah

While this bakes in the oven, your whole house will be perfumed with the scent of cinnamon. This delicious cinnamon-walnut filled challah reminds me of the Slovenian pastry povitica.

Cardamom Date and Rosewater Challah

Cardamom Date and Rosewater Challah

5. Cardamom Date and Rosewater Challah

This exotic cardamom date and rosewater loaf is filled with dates and pistachios and flavored with rosewater. This would be the perfect centerpiece for a cheese board.

Chocolate Orange Challah

Chocolate Orange Challah

6. Chocolate Orange Challah for Rosh Hashanah

The dough is rich with eggs (and an extra yolk for good measure) olive oil, and honey. Orange juice and the zest of one orange provide the acid that yeast loves. If you stopped right there, you would have a delicious, tangy orange challah. But Leili takes it to the next level with the addition of a dark bittersweet chocolate filling.

He shares two dozen step-by-step photos to guide you in making a stunning chocolate orange challah.

Gingerbread Challah

Gingerbread Challah

7. Gingerbread Challah

A good loaf of challah is rich and pillowy and sweetened typically with honey. This gingerbread challah does away with typical; instead of honey, the sweetness comes in the form of molasses and warm winter spices like cinnamon and nutmeg scent the loaf. Finish it off with a shower of crystallized ginger.

Pumpkin Challah

Pumpkin Challah

8. Pumpkin Challah

The addition of pumpkin puree to this loaf makes an already soft bread even more moist and pillowy. Serve this pumpkin challah with soup, toast it for croutons, or use the leftovers to make the most amazing French toast.

Garlic Challah

Garlic Challah

9. Garlic Challah

This garlic challah is soft and pillowy, with pockets of roasted garlic woven within. It would be the perfect side for pasta with a rich red sauce or a bowl of Tuscan bean soup. It's also great toasted with cheese on top.

Vegan Challah

Vegan Challah

10. Vegan Challah

Because of the egg-rich dough and egg-wash browned crust, one might think that challah is out of reach for vegans. Not so. This vegan challah is just as moist and golden as the traditional bread, with the addition of two "secret" (and incredibly genius) ingredients.

The Fable of the Bloodless Challah

There once was a rabbi, a pious man, a holy man who never turned away anyone in need. All travelers were welcome in his humble home. One Friday a Gentile beggar came to the door, asking for a piece of bread to satisfy his hunger.

The only bread in the house was the challah that the rabbi’s wife had baked for Shabbos. She did not want to cut into the bread, especially for a non-Jewish beggar but her husband insisted. “Cut the challah, blood won’t come from it.”

The challah was sliced and the beggar ate his fill. Sometime later, the rabbi was traveling through a forest. A gang of robbers surrounded him, stole his money, bound his hands and feet, and marched him to their leader who would decide the rabbi’s fate.

The leader of the gang immediately recognized the rabbi as the man who had kindly offered him challah when he, the gang leader, was starving. “This holy rabbi kept me alive. Do not kill him. Return his money to him and release him.”

When the rabbi returned home, he told his wife what had happened and repeated once more “As I told you, cut the challah, blood won’t come from it.”

Sources

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 31, 2020:

Adrienne, I'm glad I was able to help you make a new food discovery. Thank you for your kind words. May you have a blessed New Year.

Adrienne Farricelli on December 31, 2020:

I never tried this bread and never really heard about it until now. So nice to discover new foods. I am a foodie so any food discovery is to treasure. I like that you offered so many variants for this Jewish bread.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 29, 2020:

Thank you Emge. It is very tasty indeed. I hope you will try one of the recipes.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 29, 2020:

This is an awesome article and a photograph of the Jewish bread looks appetizing.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 29, 2020:

Thank you Sp Greaney. Yes, use your imagination with those fillings.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on December 29, 2020:

The story of the bread was very interesting. They all look delicious and I love how you can easily adapt the bread recipe and change it up.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

MizB, I will find a gluten free challah for you.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 28, 2020:

That looks soooo good. There isn't a one of those breads that didn't have my mouth watering. If only I could eat them. Back before I discovered I had Celiac, my husband Larry would go on a bread-making spree, and wouldn't stop until I called a halt. Usually after I discovered another 5 lbs. when I stepped on the scale.

That was a wonderful story about the rabbi and the challah.

Happy New Year to you and your family, Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Flourish, you aren't too shabby on that story-telling either. Your articles on Spinditty are so well-researched and witty. Always a joy to read.

Thank you for your kind words and support. Best wishes to you for a better New Year.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 28, 2020:

You are a good storyteller, Diva. I enjoyed the history and story and the bread recipes made me hungry. Much love to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Thank you Peggy. I can't find one of these recipes that I would NOT want to make. The garlic version is happening this week. I appreciate that you took the time to find me and leave a comment. I hope you have a wonderful New Year.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 28, 2020:

When we lived in Wisconsin, I made many homemade loaves of yeast bread. Sometimes I would braid it. Those flavor variations you have shown for challah sound good. That tale about the rabbi and sharing of the challah is an interesting one.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Thank you, Bill. I think the garlic version will be happening in the Carb Diva kitchen this week. I wish you could join us. A Happy New Year to you and Bev as well.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 28, 2020:

I've seen it and heard of it, but never had it. Sign me up for that garlic challah. I would love it, I'm sure.

Loved the fables and history. Your unique way of presenting foods to us is appreciated, I'm sure, by many of us. Well done, my friend, and Happy New Year to you.

manatita44 from london on December 28, 2020:

Yes. A beautiful Hub. Felt really good to read, like the culinary special usually tucked away for friends ... or a fine vintage from Tuscany. For me, a charming piece! (Don't ask me why) Don't know.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Thank you, Manatita. May we all just learn to love one another--perhaps the commonality of sharing food bridges the gap. A blessed New Year to you.

manatita44 from london on December 28, 2020:

A beautiful mixture of myths, stories and tradition. You've done an excellent job with the traditional Challah. It taste is as palatable as it looks. Delicioso! You've done a vegetarian one for me, too! Awesome!

All Faiths have their rich traditions, myths, or stories. They are very meaningful to us. I'm not part of the anti-religious spiritual groups but inclusive. We need our dogmas, rituals and traditions, like the baby his pampers. Each a necessary journey in this school of life. Happy New Year!!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Ann, I love to tell stories. I'll never be the writer that Billybuc is, but I'll keep trying. Thank you for your kind words my friend.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 28, 2020:

Good morning Pamela. I'm glad you hopped to it and got your comment in before HP slammed the door shut. I'm sorry that you can't bake bread any more (yes, it does require being on one's feet for a time). Perhaps your sister can make one of those loaves for you. Take care and have a safe and happy New Year.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 28, 2020:

Another great food article with all the marvellous history to go with it. This is mouth-wateringly interesting and refreshing, Linda. Breads like this are right up my street - cinnamon and walnut mmm... sounds wonderful. And a story to boot!

Brilliant!

Ann

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 28, 2020:

I really enjoyed reading the history of the challah, and the story was fun to read also. I wish I could still bake bread, but unfortunately I cannot. I really thought the Cinnamon Walnut Stuffed Challah looked so delicious, but then most of them did. I am going to forward this article to my sister. Thank you, Linda.