Rabbi Stephen Wylen makes a mean challah. So good, in fact, that he has been called upon to teach challah-making at his synagogue, Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, as well as at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey.
"I started making challah when I was in seminary," said the rabbi. "But for the first couple of years, it was inedible."
It wasn’t until his stint in the 1980s as religious leader at B’nai Sholom in Huntington, W.Va., that his bread-making life changed forever. There he met Lil Fetter, a woman, then in her 80s, "who made challah for every bar mitzvah. She was famous for her challah."
Fetter shared her recipe with him, but told him that he was to use it only at home, not to share it. But now that the original baker has died, "I guess I can share it," he told The Jewish Standard.
The secret of successful baking is to remember that "dough is a living thing," he said. "It’s alive. You have to develop a feel for it. It took me years."
Wylen said his proudest moment as a Jew occurred three years ago when his middle daughter, Shoshana, then living in Jerusalem, asked him for the recipe.
"We got the ingredients but we couldn’t get the yeast," he said, noting that he went first to Machane Yehudah and then to Super Sol looking for the missing item. "I asked some guy who worked there [at Super Sol] and an older woman overheard me. She knew what I was looking for and showed me where it was."
After he told her he was teaching his daughter and daughter-in-law how to make challah, "she asked me for the recipe and then asked me to wait while she went over to the checkout and wrote it down. All these Yemenite women in leggings were excited about the recipe," he said, noting his own excitement at sharing his special formula with "six or seven elderly women in Jerusalem." In addition, he said, "Shoshana now makes a fantastic challah."
"Many people misunderstand the meaning of challah," said Wylen. "It’s special for Shabbat not because it’s braided, which was simply a medieval tradition, but because it’s made of expensive ingredients. White flour, sugar, eggs, shortening only kings and noblemen could afford those. The community provided charity funds so that Jews could have bread made from expensive ingredients."
He added that the recipe for challah in the First Jewish Catalogue was "not good" and he suspects that it "turned off a lot of people." His own recipe, he said, has evolved over the years. "I don’t really remember the original [recipe] or even how I’ve changed it," he said.
An ‘evolving’ challah recipe
5 eggs at room temperature: Take eggs out of the refrigerator, put them in a pan of cold water, and run the pan under warm water until eggs are warm.
5 cups white bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (or, if you prefer, use 6 cups white bread flour)
1 pkg. dry yeast
1 1/’ tsp. salt
1/’ cup plus 1/4 tsp. sugar
6 tbs. olive oil or one stick melted pareve margarine
1 cup warm water
Dissolve yeast and 1/4 tsp sugar in 1 cup warm water. Let set until foamy, about five minutes.
Separate two eggs, reserving their yolks in the refrigerator, then lightly whip the remaining eggs and whites.
Put remaining sugar and salt into electric mixer or a large ceramic bowl. Add eggs, olive oil, and dissolved yeast. Stir.
Add 1 cup of whole wheat and ‘ cups of white flour, mixing until smooth. If mixing by hand, use a large wooden spoon.
Add 3 more cups of flour and knead into dough, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes with an electric dough hook, until the dough gives at the touch and bounces back. While kneading, add more flour, 1/’ tsp at a time, if the dough is sticky, until it is firm but workable. Be careful not to add too much flour.
Too little kneading makes a hard loaf. Too much kneading makes a tough and rubbery loaf.
Turn out the dough, knead by hand a few times, place in a large, lightly greased ceramic bowl, and cover with a cloth.
Keep in a warm place for 1 1/’ hours while the dough rises. An oven warmed to 85 degrees is ideal. Punch down after 1 hour.
Turn out the dough and cut into six equal pieces. Roll each piece between the hands to make a string about 1′ inches long. Be careful not to tear the dough while working it.
Put 3 strings side by side, pinch together at the top, braid, fold under, and pinch at the end. Push together with the hands to make the braid tight. Repeat with the other 3 strings.
Set two loaves on a greased baking sheet, let rise in a warm place for one hour.
Mix 1 tbsp. water into the reserved yolks, mix, and brush the mixture on the tops of the loaves with a pastry brush. If desired, sprinkle the tops of loaves with sesame or poppy seeds.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Most people like a slightly under-cooked challah, which has a more cake-like texture. If making one large challah instead of medium loaves, add 5 to 10 minutes to baking time.
Note: proper kneading procedure is a must! Fold over the dough and press together with the palms of the hands. Be careful never to stretch or tear the dough. The love you put into the kneading will return to your family and guests as they eat the challah.