I’ve got no patience for chocolate challah, chocolate chip challah, pumpkin spice challah, peanut butter challah, apple pie challah, pizza challah, and the myriad other challah mutations popping up in cyberspace each day.
It’s not that they aren’t tasty—I’m prepared to believe that a peanut butter challah can taste good. It’s just that challah needs to be, well, challah. These foods—I’m not quite sure what to call them—have an identity crisis. What are they? Challahs, or some other kind of baked goods—muffins, pie, or perhaps cake? And if so, when do you serve them? For breakfast, for dinner, at the start of the meal, or for dessert?
The halakha, Jewish law, in its Sephardic variation, has a lot to say on the subject. According to the Sephardim, Jews whose roots are in the Middle East or the Levant, bread which is defined as a baked good that merits ritual handwashing, the hamotzi blessing, and the birkat hamazon, must be pure: flour, water, yeast or starter, salt, and not much more. That means no chocolate or peanut butter or cranberries or even too much sugar and oil. (The Sephardim regard all but the most basic of Ashkenazi challahs as cake, which has a briefer and less important blessing set). Interestingly, savory Sephardic challahs are the perfect base for the mezze of savory dips which often prelude Sephardic Sabbath meals. You can’t smear babaganoush on apple pie challah.
As a born and bred Ashkenazi, I don’t follow this practice, but I identify with the wisdom behind it. There needs to be a line in the sand, a distinction between challah and cake. Why? Tevyeh, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” said it well—tradition. There is an inherent power in doing something the way it’s always been done, especially if it works. In a world in which change is the only constant, reenacting a ritual or a recipe from the past can restore one’s spirit. Baking challah the old-fashioned way can feel almost like a culinary séance, as we channel the spirits of the women who came before us, our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers into our baking.
That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be creative. Surfing the blogosphere, I noticed that these trendy recipes seem to come in one shape, the simple three braid. Why? To me that shows a lack of imagination, especially since Jewish women have braided more elegantly for centuries. It’s an old tradition to serve two six-stranded challahs on Shabbat. The 12 strands (two sixes combined) recall the tribes of Israel, the 12 angels surrounding the Heavenly throne, and the 12 loaves of Shew Bread, the forerunner to our own challahs, which sat on the golden table in the Temple in Jerusalem.
For holidays, it’s customary to fashion elaborately shaped challahs, like edible soft sculptures: circles to mark the cycle of life for Rosh Hashanah; ladders to evoke the bridge between heaven and earth for Shavuot, hands symbolizing God’s outstretched “hand” for the eve of Yom Kippur; and my favorite, the elegant Sephardic Siete Cielos (Ladino for the Seven Heavens) challah illustrating the seven layers of heaven which opened when the Torah came to the world. I can’t imagine a better centerpiece and a memory for one’s children to take with them into their lives.
As a relative old timer who grew up in the ‘60s when challahs were called “hollies” and came from the bakery, I’m awestruck by the renewed interest in the art of challah baking. But please, let’s keep our challahs challah. Save the chocolate for brownies.