Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

The Sweet Smell of Friday Night: Baking Challah

The Sweet Smell of Friday Night: Baking Challah

Is there anything like the sweet torture of the aroma of bread baking in the oven?

Old South Head Road from Bondi Junction you will go down a steep hill lined with tall trees and grand apartment buildings. At the bottom of the hill, you will see the rolling greens of the Royal Sydney Golf Club on your left and the Bondi Mizrahi Synagogue on the right. Further down, is the Gaslight Chemist, which has been there forever (or as long as I can remember). There are fruit shops, hardware stores, kosher restaurants, Chinese restaurants, pizza joints and other small businesses. My beautiful and sweet cousin Rachel and her husband Baruch own the Bagel Company, purveyors of the best bagels, salads, cupcakes and flat white coffees.

If you go to the Bagel Company on a Friday morning, you will see a long queue of people waiting patiently for their Shabbat challah. 

When I was growing up, my grandfather purchased challah at another bakery on Old South Head Road, Soos Bakery. Established by a Hungarian emigre couple in the 1940’s, I remember that their challah was branded with a little square slip of paper bearing their logo, browned from time in the oven. Those were simple days and the choices were plain, sesame or raisin. 

Every Friday night, two of their delicious challah would sit under my grandmother’s embroidered challah cover, just waiting for the blessing.
—Sharon

In Morocco, my mother would bake bread every week. It was not an egg bread, it wasn’t braided and we didn’t call it challah. It was a simple water-based dough shaped into simple loaves, sometimes with fennel seeds mixed in. 

As a wife and mother, I always loved the way that the smell of challah baking in the oven on Thursday night would spread through my house. On Friday mornings, my kids would wake up and know that Shabbat is coming. I still love to bake at least five pounds of flour so that I can say the bracha (blessing) of hafrashat challah. I freeze the extra well-wrapped challah and then I don’t have to bake for a month. 

My family waits with great anticipation to the fresh challah I bake for the first Shabbat after Pesach.
—Rachel

The mitzvah of hafrashat challah, commonly known as “taking challah” is one of the three mitzvot specifically granted to women. When a woman bakes five pounds of flour, she is obligated to separate a piece of the challah and burn it in her oven and then she recites a special bracha. It is a special reminder of the Holy Temple and a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with our inner spirituality.

Over the years, Rachel and I have had the privilege of attending many challah bakes. Rachel and I have even had the privilege of hosting challah bakes. Rachel was inspired to begin baking by the incomparable Debby Segura. I learned from my mother. But I really started baking challah when my kids attended camp with my dear friend and baker extraordinaire Lillian Douek (co-owner of the La Brea Bagel Company). She would bake challah with the entire camp and my kids would be so excited to bring home their challot. When camp was over, they missed the taste of home made challah and we would bake together. My oldest daughter Gabriella would quickly braid her challah and return to whatever book she was reading. My youngest daughter Shevy would sit there braiding the dough, then roll it back into a ball and braid it again and again. (No, I wouldn’t let anyone eat it.) My middle daughter and official Sephardic Spice Girls photographer Alexandra was the one with the patience to stand there and bake properly. She is still the one who loves to bake challah in our home. 

Baking challah is a labor of love. It requires the patience to wait for the yeast to proof, to measure and sift the flour, to knead and knead until all the ingredients become smooth and elastic. Punch down and wait for it to rise. Punch down again and wait for it rise. Divide it, shape it, roll it, twist it, braid it. Brush with an egg wash, add a topping. 

Is there anything like the sweet torture of the aroma of bread baking in the oven?

WHILE THE IDEA OF BAKING YOUR OWN CHALLAH MIGHT SEEM INTIMIDATING, OUR RECIPE WILL GUARANTEE THAT THE RESULTS ARE WORTHWHILE. 

While the idea of baking your own challah might seem intimidating, our recipe will guarantee that the results are worthwhile. Light, fluffy, moist.

Fresh home baked challah is the magic ingredient of the Friday night meal and that first bite……..aaaah!

Sephardic Spice Girls Challah Recipe

(Makes 4-6 loaves)
4 tablespoons active dry yeast
5 cups warm water
3 tablespoons sugar
5 lbs high gluten bread flour, more
as needed
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons salt
4 eggs
1/3 cup honey
1¼ cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)

Instructions

  1. Combine dry yeast, warm water and 3 tablespoons of sugar in a glass bowl. Cover with a towel and set aside to proof 10 minutes
  2. In a large bowl, combine all of the flour with 3/4 cup sugar and salt. Add the eggs, honey and oil and mix well.
  3. Add the proofed yeast to the flour mixture and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated. Transfer dough to working surface and knead until smooth and elastic, or use a stand mixer. If the dough is too sticky to handle, gradually add a little more flour.
  4. Return the dough to the large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Set aside to rise in a warm, draught-free spot.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  6. Separate the dough into sections and braid into challah. Allow each challah to rise 15 minutes then brush with beaten egg, sprinkle toppings and bake for about 45 to 60 minutes. The challah should be golden on top and bottom.
  7. Allow to cool completely before storing.
  8. To freeze, double wrap in foil, then place in a plastic bag.
  9. Defrost the challah at room temperature, still wrapped in foil, then place in a oven warmed to 350°F for 15 minutes.

Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.