Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
Home-baked challah for Rosh Hashanah — and year-round.
Ask Gene Schramm when he started making challah and he replies, unhelpfully, “At least a year ago.”
His wife, Dr. Mintzi Schramm, clarifies that he took up challah baking when he retired as a professor of linguistics and Semitics at the University of Michigan. That was 29 years ago. The Schramms live in Southfield and are longtime members of Young Israel of Oak Park.
After experimenting with different recipes, Schramm settled on a favorite: his modification of the no-knead challah popularized by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François in their 2007 Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Schramm notes the book title is a bit of an exaggeration; it does take more than five minutes.
Watching Schramm work in the kitchen is an education. He works slowly, systematically, meticulously, step-by-step with unhurried concentration. Baking seems a mental discipline, a sort of meditation.
Schramm says, “Now that I have given this recipe to you, it is yours. Do with it whatever you want. I never cheat and withhold information about a recipe.”
Schramm feels proud that one of his granddaughters, Nechama Werther of Denver, bakes challah using the same recipe.
And what does he do differently to make challah for Rosh Hashanah? “Nothing special,” he says. “Same thing.”
Fun With Challah
Marc Sussman of Huntington Woods makes a special fancy challah for Rosh Hashanah as well as for other occasions during the year.
Sussman retired from work as an attorney specializing in Social Security disability cases. He and his wife, artist Lynne Avadenka, director of Signal-Return letterpress shop in the Eastern Market, have two sons, both chefs in Brooklyn, N.Y. Marc and Lynne live in Huntington Woods, and they belong to Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield.
Sussman tells how he got started as a challah baker.
“The family legend — I am not sure if it is really true — is that when Lynne and I got back from our honeymoon, I saw Lynne getting ready to bake challah and I offered to do it, telling her, “You know, I could do that. I know how.”
She replied, “Be my guest.”
That was 42 years ago, and she has not made challah since.
He had learned to bake challah some time earlier. “You know,” he says, “there is a Jewish tradition to give credit to your teacher. B’nai Moshe had a service auction for some good cause, and I won — and paid for — instruction in challah baking from Pearlena Bodzin. I still use the recipe I got from Pearlena, but sometimes I embellish it in two ways.
“For Yom Tov or for a secular holiday, I sometimes make the challah in a special shape. For Shavuot, the tablets; for Chanukah, a chanukiah; for Tu b’Shevat, a tree.
“For Thanksgiving, I make the challah in the shape of a turkey; it comes out terrible, awful, scary, looking like a kindergartner’s art project. ‘What is it, dear? Is it a dinosaur?’ ‘It’s a turkey.’
“For Rosh Hashanah, I follow a tradition of making the challah in a ring, with a ramekin in the middle. When we serve the challah, we put honey in the ramekin. We celebrate the renewal of the year on Rosh Hashanah, the turning of the cycle of seasons, and round challah can symbolize that continual circle. We also speak of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, when we recall the cycle of life.”
For Sussman, another way to make challah special involves adding “stuff.”
“I put anything in it: sweet things like raisins, craisins, dried apples, dried apricots, cinnamon, chocolate chips; savory things, especially a mixture of savory sage, rosemary, oregano, basil and caraway seeds.”
Sussman says that sometimes baking challah feels like a chore. If he gets home late on Thursday night, starting the dough means that he will stay up late baking. However, he enjoys the hands-on, physical work and the creativity.
“It is worth doing; it is delicious,” he says. “Also, it is lekhavod Shabbat, in honor of the Shabbat. One way or another, nearly every Shabbat meal feels special. One of the elements of making the Shabbat meal special is the fresh bread.”
Sussman and Schramm agree about one of the additional benefits of home-baked challah: It makes good French toast.
Blessing for taking challah:
Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hafrish challah.
Blessed are You, Adonai, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to separate challah.
Challah Recipe From Marc Sussman
- 1½ cups warm water
- 3 packages yeast
- Large pinch sugar, about ¼ teaspoon
In a small bowl or 2-cup measuring cup, mix together using a whisk or a fork. Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes until there is a foamy head on it.
Meanwhile, in a very large bowl, mix together:
- 1½ cups warm water
- 4 teaspoons salt
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 4 eggs
Pour the foamy yeast mix into the big bowl and mix it all together.
Add bread flour a cup at a time, mixing first with a wooden spoon. When it is too stiff for the spoon, add handfuls of flour, then knead by hand until about ¾ of a 5-pound bag of flour has been added. When the dough is no longer sticky, you have put in enough flour.
Cover the dough with a towel and let the dough rise in a warm place for about two hours or more. If you have enough time, let it rise overnight at room temperature.
Take challah (a piece of dough about the size of a walnut), say the blessing, put the little piece of dough onto a piece of aluminum foil, and burn it under a broiler and dispose of it.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Form loaves, adding whatever ingredients you choose and put them into the oven, in well-oiled pans or on a well-oiled baking sheet or on parchment paper. Reduce heat to 350° after 10 minutes. Check the loaves frequently, moving them in the oven to bake evenly.
Brush loaves with a mixture of one egg and 2 tablespoons of water after about 25 minutes, sprinkle immediately with poppy or sesame seeds. Remove loaves when they have browned, about 40 minutes. Put onto a wire rack to cool. If baked in loaf pans, remove loaves from pans after they have cooled.
Gene Schramm’s Easy No-Knead Challah
Yield: 6 one-pound loaves.
- 7½ cups of flour
- All bread flour OR 1 cup white whole-wheat flour and 6½ cups bread flour
- (2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten: optional)
- 2 tablespoons instant dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ cup (brown) sugar
Place all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until combined
- 4 cups lukewarm water
- OR 3 cups lukewarm water and
- ½ cup oil
- 2 eggs
Add the liquids and mix with a paddle until the flour is totally combined.
(The mix should resemble a mass of cold cooked oatmeal).
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled container and allow to rise for approximately 2 hours, until the dough is doubled and flattened on top.
Cover the container loosely and refrigerate the dough for three hours or overnight.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and divide the mass of dough into six parts.
Shape each piece into cylinders approximately ¾ of an inch thick.
Fold each cylinder over into a loaf shape.
Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Glaze each loaf with an egg wash (or use Eggbeaters) and allow to dry. Glaze again.
Place each loaf in a lightly greased loaf pan.
Heat oven to 425 degrees for water challah or 325 degees for egg challah. Bake the bread for 30 to 35 minutes.