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The Gentile’s Guide to Challah and Subsequent French Toast *UPDATED*

Update: The original title of this post used the word “shiksa,” which is inappropriate for me to use as a non-Jew. It was an arrogant and insensitive choice, and I’m sorry for the mistake and any harm it’s caused our readers. I changed the title, and I will do better in the future.

I decided to make my first challah when I saw a French toast recipe that called for it on PBS’s America’s Test Kitchen and couldn’t find it at any of my local bakeries or grocery stores. I’m so glad I did, because this bread is the best I’ve ever made, if not the best bread I’ve ever eaten. I’ve made it several times, and it’s my number one choice for hearty sandwiches, grilled cheese and, of course, French toast. Challah relies on both egg and a large amount of white sugar to keep the yeast organisms satisfied and happy before they explode into deliciousness. These creates softer, more tender gluten chains, which in turn makes the final bread softer and fluffier than traditional white breads, especially from a bread maker.

The Origins of Challah Part

Challah is an egg-based yeast bread traditionally served for the Sabbath and during certain festivals and holidays. Jewish bakers who observe Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) will bake parve Challah, which means the bread contains neither meat or dairy products. Challah has a rich history of folklore, and is frequently prepared in symbolic ways, to represent the holiday it is prepared for. For Rosh Hashanah, for example, it’s traditional to serve a round challah to symbolize the circle of life.

The name challah actually refers to a piece of dough that is removed prior to baking.

The name “challah” is derived from the Hebrew word used for “portion” in the Biblical commandment “of the first of your dough you shall give unto the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations.” Jews were biblically commanded to separate from their doughs one twenty”‘fourth and give it to the kohanim (priests) every Sabbath. In post-Temple times the rabbis ordained that a challah (portion), which had to be at least the size of an olive, must be separated from the dough and burned. Source.

The NYCookery blog has a more detailed explanation, from an interview the blog author did with Joan Nathan, author of several Jewish cookbooks. Nathan says this:

The prayers and customs that accompany the mitzvah of making a special bread for the Sabbath are the same the world over. They link the present to the time of the Book of Leviticus, when God instructed Moses to place two rows of six challot [the plural of challah] each on before the Lord in the tent of meeting. For more than 4,000 years since, Jews have been making or buying some form of challah every Sabbath.

On Friday night, every observant Jewish family the world over recites three blessings before dinner…the third is over two covered loaves of challah. This last prayer gives thanks to God… “the one who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then a morsel of bread for each person at the meal is broken off before the words Shabbat shalom are spoken. The blessing over the bread at the beginning of every meal connects the Jews continuously to the food that grows in the earth and to God. On the Sabbath, the bread becomes a symbol of holiness. Source

The Baking the Challah Part

As this project already takes a significant chunk of time, we’re going to cheat and make the dough for our challah in the bread machine. If you don’t have a bread machine, you can still follow along at home. Proof your yeast, then blend all the ingredients together. Knead until blended and a smooth, slightly sticky ball. Cover and put somewhere warn to rise, until it doubles in size. Pound it down, then let it rise again.  From there you can follow my instructions.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole large egg
  • 1 cup hot (110° F/ 43° C) water
  • ¼ cup butter or parve margarine
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups bread flour, shifted and leveled off
  • 2 ¼ bread machine yeast, or instant dry active yeast

Depending on your breadmaker’s manufacturer instructions, add the wet ingredients, the fat, the sugar and the salt to the bread pan first.

Split picture of an egg in a plastic cup. On the right, the egg is in the shell, on the left, the cup holds the yolk and egg white.
Before and after.
half a stick of unsalted butter, cut into cubes, laying on wax paper butter wrapper
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed

 

Six tablespoons white sugar in a square ramekin with rounded corners
6 tablespoons sugar

Next, add the flour. Make sure to create some sort of large peak, you’re going to dig out a little hole for the yeast in the flour, where it won’t interact with any of the wet ingredients.

Three cups of white bread flour in individual cup-sized containers
3 C. bread flour

Next, make your little hole.

Ingredients in a bread machine, with flour on top. There's a small indentation in the flour to place the yeast.
The fungi will be very happy here, where it's warm and filled with wet, sugary things to eat.

Add the yeast, taking a moment to marvel at the wonders of food science. Yeast is fascinating. These tiny little one-celled organisms turn flour, salt, sugar and water into bread, and they do it with their farts.

A close-up shot of a teaspoon of instant dry yeast.
Yeast, before it reanimates, eats, farts and dies. It's the zombie of your kitchen.

Aw, look  how cozy.

Yeast meets flour in the bread machine.
It's about to get active in here.

Set your bread machine to the dough setting and let it work it’s magic. Check while it’s doing the first knead to make sure the dough ball doesn’t look too wet or too dry. You want it to be smooth and crack-free, but not shiny wet, either. A properly prepared dough ball is going to be matte.

When the dough cycle completes, turn the dough ball out onto a floured surface. I just use my counter. Be generous with the flour you sprinkle, it’s about to get all sorts of contorted in here. Sticky hands just won’t do.

Carefully break the dough into three equal sections. Roll the first section into a long rope. The instructions I’ve read say to aim for a length the width of your thumb, but I’ve never once been able to get on that thin. Fat challah ropes still make delicious bread, I can vouch. Roll each section one by one, taking time to go back and forth when your dough bits spring back into stubs from your carefully rolled lengths. Give up when you’ve got dough blobs longer than they are wide and move on.

Pinch the ends of your three sections together and braid, right over center, left over center, right over center, etc.  When you come to the end, neatly tuck the ends under the bread so it’s pretty. Carefully transfer the bread to a parchment paper lined baking sheet and put somewhere warm to rise for one hour, or until doubled in size.  Towards the end of the rise, pre-heat your oven to 350° F/177° C.

Mix one egg, one tablespoon water and one teaspoon vanilla extract in a small bowl. When the loaf has risen completely, brush a thin layer of the egg wash all over the bread.

Baking eggwash in a glass bowl with silicone pastry brush laying across the rim.
The vanilla makes it smell like unicorn giggles in the oven.

At this point, it smells wonderous, but it looks like a buttered, boneless, genetically mutated chicken carcass or one of the sand worms from Dune. Wait, dear readers, it’s about to get magical.

Braided challah dough brushed with eggwash, ready to go in the oven
This amorphous, slimy blob of farting unicell organisms is about to take a turn for the delicious.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown and it sounds hollow when you tap on it. (We gave that yeast a LOT to eat, it was very busy in our bread.)

Close up shot of a baked, braided challah loaf.
A delicious sand worm.

This loaf is the proper color and consistency, but a loaf I made a few weeks ago actually turned out prettier.

Cut loaf of braided challah bread, with slice leaning against the cut end of the loaf.
While not as pretty as the loaf below on the outside, this one was perfect on the inside.

 

Baked loaf of braided challah bread
The better looking challah, yet still looks like a sand worm. He who rules the challah rules the world.

I wanted to make out with this one, it was so pretty.

Challah #2 cross-section. It's a little drier, and the air pockets are bigger and less uniform. It still tasted like unicorn giggles, don't get me wrong, the other loaf just turned out a little better.

The French Toast Part

Moving on, we’re finally at the part where we turn our bread into delicious French toast. This recipe is a slightly adapted version of the one seen on PBS’s America’s Test Kitchen. I’m a huge fan, their methods appeal to my proclivities. After testing every bread known to man and womankind, the Test Kitchen experts determined challah bread is the perfect density and consistency for holding batter and frying like a boss.

Ingredients

  • Two cups milk (I use whole, b/c I live dangerously.)
  • Two tablespoons brown sugar
  • Two egg yolks
  • One tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Smattering of cinnamon
  • Two tablespoons butter, melted (plus more for frying)
A stainless steel bowl, a measuring cup of milk, two eggs, a jar of cinnamon, a bottle of vanilla, a 1/4 stick of butter and a container of brown sugar, arranged on a cutting board.
This is what you need to make the toast part of the French toast.

Whisk all the ingredients except the melted butter in a bowl until smooth and frothy. Add the butter slowly at the end, adding it too fast can cook the egg. Pour into a shallow dish large enough to let bread slices soak and let stand for a few minutes while you toast the bread lightly.  I put the slices under the broiler of my oven for a few minutes per side.

Four 3/4 inch thick slices of oven-toasted bread, sitting on a cooking rack which is resting on a baking sheet.
Mmmmmm. Toasty.
Stainless steel bowl of dipping ingredients, whisked together.
This smells like joy.

Let the bread soak in the egg and milk mixture for around 30 seconds per side, less if you’re using thinner slices of bread.

Two bread slices soaking in egg and milk mixture in a casserole dish.
Remember to let it soak!

Heat a tablespoon or so of butter in a heavy skillet until melted and pan is sizzling hot. Lay your slices in the pan in a single layer. Don’t crowd the pan, split it up into two batches if you need to. Cook for several minutes before gently flipping the bread over.

Four thick slices of French toast cooking in butter in a cast iron skillet.
Now we're cooking with gas.

When it looks like the photo below on both sides, you’ve done everything perfectly.

Four slices of French toast, done on one side, cooking in butter in a cast iron skillet.
We're so close! Look at how gorgeous these babies are.

The Fluffy Pink Stuff Part

I realized I was out of syrup about halfway through the cooking step above. I improvised by tossing two blocks of cream cheese, roughly a dozen hulled and diced strawberries, a teaspoon of vanilla, 1/4 cup of sugar and a splash of half & half in the food processor and whipping until it looks like delicious.

Food processor filled with cream cheese, sugar and hulled strawberries, whipped until light and fluffy.
No syrup? NO PROBLEM. Behold my fluffy pink alternative.

 

The “Oh Shit, I Can Finally Eat This?” Part

I spread a thickish layer of strawberry cream cheese on top of each slice, then used my sifter to dust the top with a bit of powdered sugar.

It was amazing. The below amount is probably four servings, but I put a serious dent in it anyway, because it tasted like cumming feels.

Square white plate with two pieces of French toast, spread with a generous layer of strawberry cream cheese and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
OMDFG.

 

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

15 replies on “The Gentile’s Guide to Challah and Subsequent French Toast *UPDATED*”

I love Challah. I don’t use a bread machine though. . . I try to start the dough on Thursday so it can rise once before bed, get pounded down, let rise over night, pounded down again in the morning, and then once risen to double popped into the oven. But sometimes I am too exhausted or depressed or distract-able to get to it Thursday night so it all gets done Friday and has no time to cool after the oven  before dinner.

I also am a little boggled at the way you do Yeast- is that a bread machine thing? I always prep my yeast in a bowl to the side, regardless of the type of bread I’m making. You mix yeast, sugar, and WARM water in a bowl and let activate- I usually use this time to mix all the dries with each other in one bowl, and all the other Wets in another bowl. After the Yeast is activated as per the yeast packaging, I mix it and the wets at the same time into the dries.

I have a friend (though I can’t for the life of me remember which. . . ) whose childhood Rabbi’s wife used a LOT of Honey in her Challah, but no butter or margarine. I’ve tried both with and without honey- with a week where I went to make it and there was no vegetable oil (which I use instead of butter or margarine) in the house being the honey one. It was okay, but not the taste I was looking for. I think I’ve tried adding oregano once and that was okay?

I’ve been Homeless for the past year (couch surfing for survival), though, so It’s been about that long since I have had a chance to go all out. First Friday after I get housing again I’m having a FEAST. A Feast of Challah.

My mother is GF and the oven part of my sister’s oven doesn’t work, so I’m severely Baking deprived right now.

Yep, the yeast trick is a bread machine thing. It’s actually not all that critical unless you’re setting it on delay. It’s to keep the yeast from reacting with the sugars until it’s time to mix. I proof the yeast in any non-machine recipe. I’ve always used slightly cooler water than this recipe calls for in other breads, but this has turned out perfectly every time, so I don’t question.

I love the texture, and the light sweetness. Here’s hoping there’s a kitchen of your own in your near future, or at least a couch in the home of a baker. : ) Challah makes everything a little better.

Once you go challah for french toast, you never go back.

The Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day book has a great Challah recipe, too, and the best thing is that you make five batches of it in one go and then have challah dough in your fridge that’s only an hour away from being delicious bread for two weeks. This gentile made it once and gave away loaves to friends and got much approval from her Jewish friends.

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