She used the blue cup with the chipped rim to measure flour and she had the uncanny ability to eyeball a room full of family and make enough challah for everyone.
For Phyllis Moss, that memory of her grandmother is as much a part of her family’s recipe for challah as the flour, yeast and eggs. Like the braided strands of the bread itself, Moss’ family heritage and the Jewish tradition are interwoven into each loaf she makes.
“It’s part of me. It’s what I do. It’s who I am,” says Moss.
Challah – pronounced with a soft h as in ha-la – is a traditional Jewish bread eaten on the Sabbath, called Shabbat, and during other Jewish festivals. It is not eaten during the eight days of Passover, when only unleavened bread is consumed. Some sprinkle the bread with poppy or sesame seeds, which symbolize God’s offering manna in the desert.
Moss says it took some time to perfect her grandmother’s recipe.
“It came from my father’s mother from Poland,” she says. “It was from her mother and where that came from I don’t know – and I’ll never find out because Hitler made sure of that. We lost over 100 of our family there, in the Holocaust.”
Like many traditional family recipes, it was never written down. “My grandmother didn’t have a real recipe.” Moss says. “It was in her head, so my aunt gave me what was in it. She tried to give me approximates.”
She used that chipped blue cup for measuring flour, adding a handful of yeast, some sugar, eggs and she adjusted depending on how large a loaf she was making. Moss kept at it until she got it just right.
“My children loved all my mistakes. They ate every mistake loaf I made,” she says.
It takes about 10 to 12 minutes to knead the dough, but when her four children were small Moss was often interrupted and would lose track of time. So one quiet day, she counted the number of times she kneaded the dough – folding, pressing, turning and folding again. It took 500 times until the dough was smooth and ready to rise.
To this day, she kneads all her bread by hand, making a mark in the flour for each 100 passes. She has the muscles to show for it, saying she would sometimes flex them for her kids and warn them to mind. These days she’s more likely to be interrupted by her grandchildren when she’s baking.
Moss makes the challah for celebrations at home and the Temple, including for the Del Bar at the annual Kosher Dinner. She’s held classes to teach other Temple members how to make the traditional bread.
Ethel Grossman says during the early days of the Kosher Dinner – this Sunday will be the 68th annual event – she would help with publicity for the dinner by taking challah to television interviews. Grossman says people often mistook it for Easter celebration bread, but it gave her a chance to talk about the tradition and share Jewish culture with the community. She has been helping with the dinner for 50 years, she says.
Challah is braided into loaves with three or six strands of dough. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration, loaves are braided into rounds, “to ensure a happy, sweet New Year that never ends,” says Grossman.
Now, people are more familiar with the braided loaves and there’s an interest by many non-Jewish people in learning to make the beautiful, golden-brown bread. The Web is full of recipes, techniques for braiding and even videos to teach those who are interested. Foodies know the rich egg loaves make fabulous French toast.
At Temple Beth Shalom, bakers consider it an honor to make the challah for celebrations such as bar and bat mitzvahs. Grossman says her daughter-in-law made all of the challah for her daughter’s wedding, taking it with her on the plane to California. Moss also made the challah for her daughter’s wedding.
“In this day and age, very few people make it,” Moss says.
The challah for the Kosher Dinner is now made in the kitchen at Super 1, Grossman says. Over the years, Temple members worked with the bakers there to teach them how to make the bread, she adds. Challah made by Temple members is sold during the dinner at the Del Bar.
Before challah is eaten, a blessing is said over the bread and then the golden, braided loaf is broken and passed to each person at the table. At Grossman and Moss’ homes and at Temple Beth Shalom, challah is not cut with a knife on Shabbat, Moss says. Knives are “weapons of war,” Moss says. The loaves of challah are broken and torn by hand.
Some also observe an old custom of salting the bread just before eating to symbolize sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem and the sweat of sacrifice.
“It’s all tied to thanking God for the food you eat … for all of the goodness in your life,” Moss says.
After Moss lets her dough rise, she cuts it in half and then separates each half into six pieces for braiding. She rolls out each piece of dough and lets it rest briefly before pinching the ends together and beginning to braid. She makes quick work of the loaves, moving the dough with sure hands. “Down, across. Down, across,” she says aloud. “That’s all it is.”
She braids a second loaf in a flash and then uses the leftover pieces to make a small braid to take home. After the braids rise, she coats each one with an egg wash before baking them. The wash includes two eggs, a hearty pinch of sugar and just a bit of water.
The bread bakes for 30 to 35 minutes. Moss can tell when it’s done just by looking at it, but she taps the bread to see if it sounds hollow before removing it from the oven.
She recommends covering the breads with a kitchen towel while cooling to prevent them from cooling too quickly and to preserve the fine texture of the loaves.
Some challah bakers also follow the custom of taking a small piece of dough and throwing it into the oven while the bread bakes. “This tradition of ‘taking challah’ or ‘separating challah’ is mentioned in the Bible … and was originally a portion of dough offered to Temple priests,” Betsy Oppenneer writes in “Celebration Breads: Recipes, Tales and Traditions.”
Moss loves sharing her recipe for challah and the memory of her grandmother. Her family heritage lives on in each person who tries the recipe, in each loaf that is shared. Moss says her daughter now makes challah and her daughter-in-law is learning.
“Rabbi says a person doesn’t die unless you forget them,” Moss says. “And he’s right if you think about it … this way their memories are carried on.”
From Phyllis Moss, Spokane Valley
2 cups warm water
3 packages (2 tablespoons) yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups flour, divided (see note)
For the egg wash:
1 pinch sugar
A bit of water
In a large bowl, combine warm water, yeast and bit of sugar. When the yeast is foamy, after about 10 minutes, whisk in the rest of the sugar, 1 tablespoon salt and 2 cups flour until well blended.
Add the eggs, whisking well to combine. Gradually add flour until the dough holds together and is ready for kneading.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead 500 times, about 10 to 12 minutes. When the bread is smooth and elastic, place it in a greased bowl, cover and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
Cut the dough in half and then cut each half into six equal pieces for each loaf. Roll each ball into a strand about 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 strands in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. If strands are uneven, cut the extra dough and tuck ends underneath.
For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way.
Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between. Allow braids to rise again.
For the egg wash, whisk two eggs, a pinch of sugar and a bit of water together in a small bowl. Brush loaves with egg wash and then bake in a 350-degree oven 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove loaves from oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Cover loaves with a kitchen towel to prevent them from cooling too quickly.
Note: It may take a bit more or less flour for the bread depending on the moisture content of the flour and the weather, Moss says.
Yield: 2 loaves challah
Best Challah (Egg Bread)
Adapted from Joan Nathan by Deb Perelman, author of the Smitten Kitchen blog.
“The secrets to good challah are simple: Use two coats of egg wash to get that lacquer-like crust and don’t overbake it. Joan Nathan, whose recipe this is adapted from, adds that three risings always makes for the tastiest loaves, even better if one of them is slowed down in the fridge.”
1 1/2 packages active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling.
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful if using a standard size KitchenAid – it’s a bit much for it, though it can be done.)
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
At this point, you can knead the raisins into the challah, if you’re using them, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.
If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.
Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the refrigerator for a few hours, for more deeply developed flavor. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.
Yield: 2 loaves