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

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.

Read More From Delishably

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.”

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