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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Objects and Subjects

I'm taking an amazing art class for adults at my children's school. Taught by the fabulously talented Rachel Rabhan (the upper school's art teacher and an incredible artist), the sessions are part drawing, part soul searching, and part therapy. A great (and very diverse) group of people get together once a week for an intimate, sensory, and cathartic experience. I'm not being paid to write this! I'm just fascinated and I feel privileged. Last week, Rachel asked us to bring in to class an object that is important to us. 
I brought a little elephant sculpture that belonged to my mother. It was the only object I took from her bedroom after she passed, exactly three years ago. She collected elephants with their trunks pointing upwards, for "good luck," she said. I needed to bring it home with me. During class, when explaining the meaningfulness of the elephant, it hit me how things are never important, unless they have a value added by another human being. The value, ultimately being feelings, which are intangible and amorphous, takes a physical form in the object, and that's why we cherish objects.
For the last three years, I've been saying kaddish the day before Chanukah, and the immense sadness of her passing, and the duration of her long disease invade me again. Not that there's ever a day in which I don't think about her and lament her absence, but when her Yor Tzeit comes, it becomes more intense, sharper and darker than usual. I'm relieved her pain is over, though. But I'll never recover from not having been able to say goodbye to her in person.
She always pushed forward and never surrendered, not even for a minute. So I know she would have preferred me to celebrate her than to cry for her (although I just feel like crying). So, last Friday, I made challah in her honor.
I chose the braided bread for many reasons.
1. The spiritual link that keeps Jewish women from every generation together and turns them into sacred beings.
2. Because the first time I ever realized challah could actually be baked at home and not bought at a store, was when my mother decided to bake one (and only) at home. I was about 7 years-old and when the shiny, golden, perfectly braided loaf came out of the oven, I thought my mother's capabilities were out of this world. Unfortunately, when we tried it, it tasted like beer. Something must have gone wrong with the yeast. She never attempted it again, but here's where I come, giving continuity to her initiative.
3. Because it felt good to think of her while kneading the dough and turning powder and liquid into edible glory worth a special blessing during the most important day of the week, seems like a miracle by itself.
4. Because I thought a bit out-of-the box for this recipe and imprinted it with my own personality; and she always encouraged me to be original, even if that wasn't always the safest way to go, nor greatly appreciated by me at the time.
5. Because going back to objects and people: challah is full of value, meaning and feelings. It represents Jews of every age, nationality, social status and for all generations. It's physically a gorgeous, delicious, sweet, rich bread, but most importantly, it's sacred to bake it, eat it and share it at your table with people you love.


  • Vegetarian (contains honey)
  • Free of: eggs, dairy, nuts, soy
  • Contains wheat and gluten
Just a couple of notes:
  • Fresh yeast is sold refrigerated, compacted into 2 oz "cakes." Make sure it's not passed its expiration date. You can keep fresh yeast frozen for a long time. Just thaw it in the fridge the night before using.
  • Use pure honey, but don't bother splurging in "raw" honey, as the challah will be baked anyways and all the raw benefits are lost with the heat.
  • Yes!!! you can use warm water instead of the green tea. But green tea adds antioxidants and a bit of UMAMI taste. I use 2 tea bags for the 4 cups of water to brew the tea.
  • When baking bread, ALWAYS use warm liquids, NOT hot, as you may kill the yeast (yes, it's alive) and your dough won't rise. The best way of testing the temperature (besides a thermometer, of course) is by feeling the liquid with your inner wrist, and if it feels warm and comfortable, the yeast will like it too.
  • Don't add more salt than stated in the recipe, as it could also kill the yeast. But don't omit salt completely either, as besides imparting flavor, it conditions the dough.
  • This recipe is EGG FREE, so you may taste the dough.
  • Add and extra 1/4 to 1/2 cup honey if you love sweet challah

4 cups warm brewed green tea (105-115 F)
2 (2 oz) bars FRESH yeast
16 oz. pure honey
2 1/2 lbs white whole wheat flour (King Arthur's), plus more for flouring surface
2 1/2 lbs bread flour ("high gluten")
2 tablespoons chia seeds, ground
1 ½ tablespoon fine sea salt
1 ½ cups grape seed or rice bran oil, plus 2 tablespoons for oiling the dough


In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm tea, stir 1 tablespoon honey and set aside (until tea starts sizzling with tiny air bubbles or if using water, until foam forms, about 10 min).

In a very large bowl (I mean huge), combine flours and salt. Make a well in the center.

Pour in the remaining honey, ground chia, oil and yeast mixture into well. Just don't discard the honey container, as you'll use the left over honey in the bottom for glaze.

Mix and knead until smooth. Do it with an electric mixer with the dough hook, or roll up your sleeves and enjoy using your hands. Dough should be elastic, and should spring back when poked with your finger.

Half the dough and shape into 2 large balls. Place in 2 separate bowls covering each all over (including bottom) with 1 tablespoon oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise on a warm place for 1-1 ½ hours (until it doubles its volume).
If you prefer, cover the challah dough and refrigerate before it starts rising, leaving it in the fridge overnight (as opposed to 1to 11/2 hours at room temp), then proceed with the next step

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Punch down dough and separate an olive-size piece of dough, saying the blessing, and burn the piece.

In a floured surface (I like working on a floured large piece of parchment paper to avoid sticking and for easy clean-up) shape each challah, by forming long "snakes" of dough by rolling pieces of dough against the surface or between your hands.

Use 3 "snakes" to make regular 3-strand braids (the challah looks even nicer when the center of each strand is thicker than the tips).

Or use 6 strands and working from right to left, follow an "up 2, down 1" pattern, until you've used all the strands. 

You can coil one large strand into a Rosh Hashanah-shaped challah or into small "knots" to make challah rolls.

Make little balls (size of a golf ball) and place them randomly in a baking pan, looks wonderfully complicated after baking, and you get a pull-apart challah.

*You could wrap challah dough at this point and freeze it until the day you'll be using it. Just thaw before baking.

Place challah loaves on parchment-lined rimmed baking pans and allow to rise for 30 minutes more.

Add a teaspoon or two of warm water into the glass where the honey used to be. Cover and shake it, so the water dissolves any honey in the container.

Brush loaves with honey-water mixture.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown. Or until the challah sounds hallow when tapped in the bottom.


Recipe makes 4 humongous loaves, or about 8 medium ones.