Challah: My gift to the world

Challah: My gift to the world

A Hoboken amateur baker pinches, punches, and gets a kneaded rise out of life

Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer with a major media company. He lives in Hoboken.

Charles Rubin, inset, baked many loaves for Rosh Hashanah. (Photos by Arvit Rubin)
Charles Rubin, inset, baked many loaves for Rosh Hashanah. (Photos by Arvit Rubin)

The biblical injunction is to honor Shabbat and keep it holy.

Over the ages, complex rules and practices have evolved to satisfy this requirement. In my home, bread makes the day special — but not just any bread. Two golden braided challah loaves, as close to fresh from the oven as time allows, have graced our table nearly every Friday night for the past 30 years.

Assemble the following ingredients:

1 tablespoon of yeast
1/4 cup plus one teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
4 cups bread flour
1 egg
3/8 cup plus 3/4 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup canola oil

I’ve always been fascinated by bread of any kind. I grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn where, within a span of a few blocks, a rich assortment of baked items could be found. Italian breads, pita, rye, pumpernickel, Portuguese rolls, bagels, bialys, and challahs all were available.

Buying bread at our neighborhood bakeries were the first errands my mother sent me on. I never knew it was wrong to bite the ends off the long seeded Italian loaves or steal the heels of the raisin pumpernickel breads on my way home until I was much older — and so I did. At a Shabbat meal, challah is often torn apart by hand and distributed rather than sliced with a knife, so it felt as if getting physical with bread was my right.

In a small bowl mix together with a whisk
1 tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon sugar
3/8 cup lukewarm water
Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes until it gets frothy.

When I was young, I went to Hebrew school at an Orthodox synagogue. My family was not Orthodox, nor were most of my classmates, but it was the neighborhood synagogue, and in those days you supported the local institution. My grandmother, born in Lahoysk, a town in the Minsk area of Belarus, reminded us of a tradition — never walk past one synagogue to go to another.

My parents mostly worked on Saturdays, but our Friday nights were special. A tablecloth graced our usually utilitarian kitchen table, wine glasses were filled, and candles were lit. I could go out on Friday nights with my friends, but only after my parents, two sisters, grandmother, and I shared a special dinner together. Unlike other nights, where my mother excelled in getting a meal together in a few minutes and it was consumed just as quickly, this meal often included soup, chicken, a noodle or potato pudding, carrots cooked in honey, dessert, and of course two braided loaves of challah.

In a large bowl combine the following
2 cups bread flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/4 canola oil
3/4 cup warm water

I attended a summer camp that in hindsight almost seems like a parody of the summer idyll. Camp Kindervelt couldn’t decide exactly what it was. Zionist? Yiddishist? Proudly American? Reform? Conservative? All of the above? Our color war cheers were in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. The sponsoring organization was called the Farband, which split from the Workman’s Circle over the founding of Israel in the 1930s and eventually closed its doors in 1971. The camp is now the site of Kiryas Joel, the largest Satmar chasidic community in the world.

There was a kosher kitchen at the camp, and we said motzi before meals and birchat hamazon afterwards, something those of us from secular homes had perhaps never experienced. Otherwise, religious practice was kept in check. It was a normal camp, with sports, swimming, sunburn, and young love as we matured.

Friday night, however, was different. Every camper dressed in white, and we walked in a long line to the dining halls singing Shabbat songs. It was the one night when we could sit with family and friends who were not our bunkmates. Normally meals took about 15 minutes, but on Friday night it went on for hours. The tables were covered in tablecloths, we had real grape juice in our cups instead of the bug juice that we craved and hated for the rest of our meals. (We craved it because it was all that we had to drink and we were desperately thirsty; we hated it for obvious reasons. It didn’t taste very good.) There was real challah on the table, not the sliced white bread that served as a platform for our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the other days of the week. We grabbed pieces of the challah after the blessings until not a crumb was left, and we begged our servers for more.

Add the contents of the smaller bowl to the larger bowl and begin mixing with a wooden spoon.

Slowly add 2 more cups of bread flour, mixing first with the spoon and then by hand.

When the mixture holds together, take it out of the bowl and begin kneading on a floured counter or board.

Fold, turn, and push down with the heel of your hands repeatedly and get a rhythm going. You have to do this for a while.

Add small scoops of flour to reduce the stickiness. Keep kneading until the bread is smooth like a baby’s bottom. This usually takes about 10 minutes.

Pour about a tablespoon of oil in the larger bowl, coat the dough in oil, and cover with a dish towel. Let this sit for about 2 hours.

Raisa Rubin shows off a finished loaf.
Raisa Rubin shows off a finished loaf.

In 1982 I married a woman who also had been a camper at Camp Kindervelt. While it would have made a great story to say that we met there, we did not. We do share unique memories of those summers and the magic of Friday evening Shabbat dinners. Our wedding ceremony was performed by the rabbi from my childhood synagogue, but as a couple, we had no definite religious identity. We did the things we were accustomed to — my wife lit the candles using candlesticks she had inherited from her grandmother, and I said an abbreviated prayer over wine and a store-bought challah.

In 1989, with a 2-year-old daughter in tow, we volunteered for a year on a kibbutz in the Galilee region of Israel. It was a young kibbutz, founded by Americans affiliated with the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Several months before embarking on this adventure, I made my first challah, using a recipe I found in Bernard Clayton’s “Complete Book of Breads.” I failed a few times, producing dense, inedible, and grossly proportioned loaves, but eventually, with tweaking, persistence, and a new respect for yeast, I nailed it. I learned to braid, figured out what the dough should feel like when it was properly kneaded, and how to rap the loaves to know when they were done.

Punch it down to get all the air out.

Knead for around 2 minutes.

Return it to the bowl, cover it with the dish towel, and let it rise for another hour.

Despite the kibbutz life — communally prepared meals that we ate together with our neighbors — I continued my Friday tradition of making challah. It soon became a friendly competition among kibbutz members to bake and sample each other’s work at the Friday evening meal. The Shabbat meal differed from all others in that we were served instead of lining up at the food trolleys, like children in school. The dining hall was freshly scrubbed, with fresh-cut flowers on the tables and the places set as if a banquet were in the offing. Kibbutzniks arrived newly scrubbed, wearing their neatest outfits. That was in sharp contrast to their regular dress — blue work clothes that often smelled of cow dung.

There were several kibbutz members who would have been interested in joining a friendly bread-making competition but were reluctant to try their hands at it for the first time. It was then that I began my one-on-one instruction in English, fractured Hebrew, and even worse Spanish. One Friday afternoon, a neighbor burst into the bathroom while I was taking a shower to ask how she could tell if the bread had risen enough.

These students still are making their own challahs in Israel, England, the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador, Canada and the United States.

Put a thin film of canola oil on a cookie sheet.

Punch the dough down.

Pinch a small piece of dough the size of a raisin, make it into a ball, and put it on a corner of the cookie sheet. This is what makes challah spiritually special. It is the sacrificial offering, a holdover from biblical practice.

Divide the dough in half.

Divide each half into four pieces.

Take three pieces and roll them into a rope about 15 inches long

Pinch the three pieces together and start braiding. Take the piece on the right and bring it over the middle piece. Take the piece on the left and bring it over the new middle piece. Repeat this on the right and left until you run out of rope.

Pinch the ends together.

Take the fourth piece and divide it into three pieces, making each rope about 16 inches long.

Braid and lay the smaller braid on top of the larger one, tucking the end of the shorter braid under the larger braid.

Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Place both loaves on the baking sheet and cover with the dish cloth.

Let rise for 1 hour

I’ve been making challah for almost 30 years now. When I miss a Friday, the week does not feel complete. Keeping up this tradition does not come without challenges. For the past 21 years, I have had a punishing schedule that does not give me the luxury to mix, knead, knead again, braid, and bake most weeks. I often leave for work, even on Fridays, before 7 a.m., and I don’t return until 7 in the evening. Challah-making in my home has become a team sport. On most Fridays nowadays, I wake up at 5:30 and mix and knead the challah. I leave the other steps to my wife, also an accomplished baker. She spaces them out so that the loaves go into the oven about an hour before the Sabbath is scheduled to come in. While it is not a requirement, nothing beats coming home to the aroma of a freshly baked bread and digging into a warm challah for our weekly Sabbath gathering.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

In a small bowl beat 1 egg

When the oven is ready, brush the loaves with the beaten egg

Place the loaves in the center rack of the oven

Bake for 30 minutes or until the loaves are golden and a rap on the bottom with your knuckle produces a hollow sound.

My daughters make their own challah now, using my recipe. When we visit them in their homes — in Waterville, Maine, and in Haifa, Israel — we find that it is gratifying to taste the loaves of a new generation.

I have no memory of teaching them, but they assure me that they received detailed coaching. Week after week they would watch and assist. Sometimes they would make their own small breads from a piece of dough I would give them, and sometimes they would help by adding flour as I mixed and kneaded.

I often feel like this is my gift to the world; the ability, technique, and confidence to take raw ingredients, which alone have little meaning but when they are put together in a proscribed way produce something of wonder.

They make the Sabbath day holy.

Charles Rubin is an information technology manager in New York. He recently moved to Hoboken.

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