Hi there. I know this is a really long post. Really long. Stay with me, though. And if you just want to learn how to weave a really cool round challah, just skip down about halfway to the diagrams. The instructions are still really long. But it’s a lot easier than the number of words would lead you to believe. Trust me.
I was asked by PresenTense a few weeks ago to contribute to the food column of their upcoming magazine, themed “Leadership and the Jewish World.” They wanted me to take a photograph of a freshly baked challah to accompany a challah recipe and “a Rosh Hashanah meditation.”
They lost me at meditation. Especially when I initially though they wanted me to write the meditation.
As karma would have it, though, on the day of our initial email introduction, Michal (the “meditator”) was in my city and my evening plans had been cancelled. So I invited her over for a little baking.
When Michal knocked on my door, I was on the phone, my 5 pm teleconference having run late. I invited her in, offered her a drink and anything else she could find in my refrigerator, and then promptly disappeared into my home office for another 20 minutes.
Phone in hand but computer off, I finally rejoined her in the kitchen, sink filled with dishes and pots that I hadn’t finished washing, and we settled down to work. She explained that her challah recipe was less about the ingredients and more about the process and experience.
“Right, so what do we need to get started?” I asked, turning to the pantry, grabbing two different flours and sugar.
My phone rang. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.” Phone cradled between ear and shoulder, I pulled out eggs and yeast from the refrigerator and continued my call, opening one of the silverware drawers and pointing towards the measuring cups, then running back to my office to draft a quick email. I then changed out of my work dress and into a tanktop and pair of gauchos.
Upon my return, Michal was measuring out ingredients, rifling through my cabinets to find what she needed. “Good, you made yourself at home.” I put my phone down at the far edge of the counter.
Michal stood in the middle of my kitchen, her feet comfortably turned out somewhere between first and second positions. She directed me to mix warm water, sugar, and dry yeast in a bowl until it bubbled. I reached for my KitchenAid mixing bowl – and she said we could use the bowl, but we wouldn’t be using the mixer. We’d be kneading it ourselves.
“Right. I forgot about that part.” I switched to a regular bowl, added the yeast, lukewarm water, and sugar, and we waited for the bubbles to show that the yeast has proofed.
While waiting, Michal explained the theory behind what she calls “deep breath baking.” She views the baking of challah as an allegory for the week: the reward for hard work is a period of much-needed (get it?) rest over shabbat. She recommends preparing the challah with intention and attention, savoring all the senses stimulated by the look, feel, smell, and taste.
We decided that our challah would be filled with the intentions of love and groundedness.
Once the yeast had proofed, we measured out flour, salt, oil, water, and eggs and began to mix. After a few swipes with a wooden spoon, I dug right in with my hands. I turned the shaggy dough out onto my counter and began to knead. Michal’s technique for kneading dough starts not with the arms and shoulders, but with the entire body, taking a bracing stance and rocking back and forth with the dough. She explained that kneading the dough strengthens the bonds between wheat proteins to form gluten and create elasticity. She instructed me to breathe deeply, taking advantage of the elasticity of my own lungs and filling them to capacity.
I built up a rhythm: inhale – lean back – scoop and gather dough, exhale – lean forward – push dough, inhale- back – scoop and gather, exhale – forward – push.
For the next ten minutes, I focused on the rocking motion, watching my hands push and pull the dough. It reminded me of how I feel when I roll out pastry dough. Calming. My mind free and uncluttered. Thinking of little more than the back and forth and the responding dough.
Michal emphasized that rest is in the challah recipe. When she normally teaches her “deep breath baking” course, she spends the hour while the challah is rising to lead a yoga class. Participants often arrive to her class armed with a mat.
We knew the dough was ready to rise in the warmth of a recently turned off oven when the dimples made by sticking in two finger remained. We spent the rising time preparing a dinner of udon and salad.
Despite my misgivings, I didn’t escape the meditation part. By the time the challah was in the oven, I was ready. We braided the loaves (more later on my newly-discovered round challah braiding technique), doused them with egg wash, and loaded them into the oven. While the air filled with the sweet scent of bread, Michal led me through two meditations, one to help ground me and another to open up my heart.
The timer buzzed. I felt invigorated.
We enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
How to weave a round challah
With Rosh Hashana just around the corner, I’ve been experimenting with different techniques to make round challah. In the past, I’ve always used the coil strategy, but I decided it wasn’t fancy enough. I searched around and found some great instructions for making a woven round challah. Trust the Chabad women – they know their challah! (Note: formatting on the website is difficult to read, so I’ve made a document that is easier to read. All of the content is exactly the same.)
On the night when Michal and I baked together, I made my first attempt. Not too bad, but with practice, I think I’ve gotten the technique down. It does take a bit of extra time and concentration. So, if you’re hurrying around the kitchen, trying to do a million things…it’s probably not the best time for a trial. But when you do have an extra few minutes, take a few breaths and try this technique. And let me know how it goes.
These instructions look much more complicated then they are – you can pretty much get by with looking at the pictures, but I’ve tried to be as explicit as possible to make things easy on you.
Divide. After your dough has risen, divide it into four strands (or eight strands if you’re going to make 2 loaves).
Weave 1. Place two strands next to each other. The next two strands will be perpendicular to the first two. Take a third strand and from left to right, place it under the first strand and over the second strand. Take a fourth strand, put it beneath and parallel to the third strand, and from left to right, place it over the first strand and under the second strand. This should form a woven cross. Each of the parallel pairs has a strand that’s an “over” and a strand that’s an “under.” In the picture below, in the top pair, the left strand is an over (let’s call it #1) and the right strand is an under (let’s call it #2). Make sense?
Weave 2: Counterclockwise. In each parallel pair, cross the under over the over. So, in the top pair above, cross the right (#2) over the left (#1) and place #2 at a 90 degree angle counterclockwise from #1 (essentially at the 9 o’clock position). Repeat with all four pairs in a counterclockwise direction. The old overs are now unders and have not moved. The old unders are now overs and have moved counterclockwise 90 degrees. There are now 4 new sets of pairs - line each pair up in parallel lines as best as you can.
Weave 3: Clockwise. Now we go clockwise. Are you still with me? Just a few more steps and we’re almost there. This is the same move as before – in each parallel pair, cross the unders over the overs — but clockwise this time. Looking at the top pair, you will want to cross the left over the right. In the picture below, I’m pulling the first under over its over (in the 3 o’clock position — sorry for not starting at the 12 o’clock position).
Repeat with all four pairs in a clockwise direction until it looks like this. Pretty cool, no? Not as hard as it sounded, right?
Keep going. If you still have some room on the strands, continue weaving, switching directions with each round. I was able to make one more counterclockwise weave.
Gather and flip. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment. When you can weave no more, gather the ends of all 8 strands in one hand and pull towards the center of the challah. With the other hand, pick up the bottom of the challah and then flip it over so that all the short strands are underneath, and place on the parchment.
Bake. Bake as you normally would. I typically brush the challah with an eggwash (egg beaten with a little cold water) and sprinkle with sesame seeds.