Way, way back, before my seemingly endless midlife crisis, before I moved from NY to California, and even before I learned to knit, I was already an established Jewish mother. Difficult to believe that anything superseded my knitting identity but indeed, the cast had been dyed. Naturally, I regularly remind my immediate family (consisting of all men and pets) that cooking is a cathartic chore, a labor of love and one that heals the soul. That said, when the holidays roll around an invisible internal switch is flipped and like millions of other Jewish mothers I am drawn to the kitchen to stand for days to cook in preparation for the impending traditional meals that accompany each holiday. While the years have naturally helped me become quite adept at producing the standards such as matzo ball soup, noodle pudding, and latkes (from scratch, natch), I have always harbored a secret shame: the inability to harness the power of yeast to make a proper Challah.
I come from a long line of Jewish cooks, all emigrating to this country and doing what any self-respecting ethnic import does: open a small kitchen beneath their apartment offering the delicacies from the eastern European nation from which they hail. Although one can expect that the talent might fade if left untapped through the generations, there is no accounting for the fact that my beloved Grandma, now 97, made a Challah every holiday and Friday for Shabbat and I, with determination that borders on a chronic disorder, have remained incapable of producing anything other than dense, stunted, pathetic lumps. Grocery store Challahs have been preferable to mine, and that is saying something in grand state of California.
In my experience, no two Challah recipes are the same. I can’t comprehend why this is so. With so few ingredients and with such vast symbolism, significance, and tradition that Challah represents, you’d think there would be some master recipe that comes with your birth certificate or with the prayer book you are gifted upon your Bat Mitzvah or confirmation. Instead, I find each recipe has a different measure of yeast, different times for the rises and final ‘proofings’. And, being incapable of being housebound for the excessive hours many recipes require for monitoring the rises with regular yeast, I have even dabbled in the dark side and tried rapid rise yeast. Regardless of the source, pictures or credentials associated with any recipe I have ever tried, my results were always the same: an epic fail and waste of flour, eggs and precious time. Why are we dependent on live bacteria as a rising agent anyway? That’s like reverse parasitism. And after hours of focused kitchen labor dedicated to this one task, the loaves are only in the in the oven for 20 minutes! My frustration was making me batty and driving me to mad assumptions and excuses for my failure, such as a person had to be Wiccan to use yeast successfully, or master it before the age of 40, and other conspiracy theories.
Nevertheless, another attempt would be inevitable, being a Jewish mother and all. So, armed with high hopes (I never know why I always think my luck will suddenly change, this time), the Joy of Cooking (arguably the Talmud of cooking fundamentals), a Fleishmann’s yeast cookbook from Grandma herself, and two Internet recipes for a fair and balanced approach, I thankfully still had the sense to buy 6 packets of yeast, just in case.
Alas (big sigh), the Challahs came out stunted, dense, and pathetic, and I didn’t even have to braid them! (Rosh Hashanah, crown). But I had enough flour, yeast, time, and murderous tenacity left over for another try. My strategy was simple: try something from each recipe that felt right to me personally and in my gut, and the worst that could happen is I’d have four Challahs suitable only for French toast and bread pudding. I’ve had worse products from lesser disasters I’ve caused. Also, I took the extra care of actually measuring the water temperature (with a meat thermometer, sorry, Jewish does not necessarily equal kosher) as too little heat won’t activate it and too much will kill the buggers, so either way, you lose because the Challah won’t rise (and when I say ‘you’ I mean ‘me’).
Today is the day that will forever be known as The Day I Conquered Yeast. Without venturing into the dark arts, without crying, and without regrets (this time) I give you a Challah recipe (in the FREE Recipes tab) fit for a Jewish mother anxious to return to her knitting. And yeast will be filed away with those other necessary evils I’ve often lamented: the gauge swatch and DPNs.
Knit (and bake) well and prosper!