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The Reluctant Balebusta

Thursday, 21 February 2008

So I have this friend. Her name is Meredith. She wrote a book about Shabbat.

modern jewish mom

And in this book, she guides the reader through making challah from scratch. It sounds so…easy. So doable.

And she’s been pestering me to just go ahead and do it.

I was going to do it last Monday figuring that my housekeeper would be around in case I got into some real trouble. But then everyone was home sick and that would just have been a very bad idea.

Then I realized that I didn’t even own a mixing bowl large enough to handle 8-10 cups of bread flour (um…had no idea that there was a special bread flour. Mrs. Milligan certainly failed to mention that important tidbit in 7th grade Home Ec.). So I borrowed one from the shul — only to discover AFTER I dropped the minivan at the shop this morning that the mixing bowl was in it. Oops. Turns out that a punch bowl works just as well 😉

The recipe:

3/4 cups sugar
2 cups lukewarm water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 TB salt
3 large eggs
3 envelopes yeast
1.4 C lukewarm water
8-10 C bread flour

Pretty straightforward ingrediants. Just a quick trip to the market to pick up the yeast and bread flour. And everything was going along swimmingly until I had mixed in about 5 cups of flour and didn’t remember cracking open any eggs. UGH! So in go the eggs.

I have heard it said of kneading dough that it can be quite the stress-reliever and I must agree. There was something hypnotic. Almost thereputic about pushing and stretching the dough over and over again.

Then the dough has to rise. And now I understand matzah


Knead again and then…challah is taken.

Ever seen those words on the side of a matzah box and wonder “what do they mean by that?” Challah refers not only to the delicious egg bread we enjoy each Shabbat but to a small piece of dough that is traditionally separated from the rest of the dough before braiding. The taking of challah is one of three commandments specifically reserved for women. (Lighting candles and mikvah are the other two.) Back when the Temple was standing, this portion of dough was set aside as a tithe for the kohanim (see Numbers 15:17-21). With the Temple no longer standing, the custom of taking challah is a symbolic act, reminding us of our ancient obligation. A blessing is recited before the dough is separated and the dough is then either thrown into the oven or discarded.

Having never baked anything other than dessert, there had been no opportunity to observe this mitzvah. Until today. Like many observances in Jewish life, I had wondered about this one but honestly never gave it a great deal of consideration. But I figured that since I was doing something that just seemed so Jewish, I ought to try out the mitzvah as well.

Let me first start by saying that nothing is ever that easy. See, I was only making a couple of loaves of bread. 8-10 cups of flours is equal to somewhere around 2 to 2.8 pounds. And a minimum of 2.11 pounds must be used for challah to be taken (and the blessing is only said when using at least 3 pounds 10.8 oz of flour). Is this commandment only for professional bakers??

I know enough about Jewish Law to know that just because something is not required does not mean that it is not permitted. So, I took challah. Just a small, round ball of it. I said the blessing, separated the dough, wrapped it in foil, and tossed it in at 350 F. I am not exagerating when I tell you that it was great. It really was. Standing in my kitchen, kneading the dough, saying the blessing… I felt connected to generations of Jewish women who have gone before me.


As the house was filled with the smell of baking bread, I waited anxiously for the arrival of the judges.

“We love it!” exclaimed Beernut and Poppyseed.


Meredith was right. Challah baking is completely doable. Even for a reluctant balebusta.

Look here for more Challah secrets!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, 21 February 2008 7:17 pm

    I’m kvelling! mazel tov! (I feel like the proud Jewish mother!)

    (And, now that your family has tasted homemade, you’ll never be able to buy challah again!)

  2. Friday, 22 February 2008 6:39 am

    Mazal Tov! Meredith and I have rival challah recipes (mine is on my blog somewhere, so you can try it next week)… we each like our own better! But she’s right. Your kids will never accept store bought again! Nothing smells like Shabbat, like baking challah! Now I’m just waiting for her to invite us over for dinner again… (meredith – it’s your turn!)

  3. Friday, 22 February 2008 7:56 am

    ha! Mine totally tastes better (but Babkanosher does braid hers better!)

    And, yep, time to host again! I’ll set something up for after I come back from CA and meet Rivster in person!

  4. Frume Sarah permalink
    Friday, 22 February 2008 8:09 am

    The Challah wars begin =) So now I’m super curious to see how BabkaNosher’s challah differs. Love how optomistic you girls are — assuming I’ll be baking challah again next week – ha ha.

    How fun would it be to have a MJM challah Bake-off!!

    Can’t wait to see you next week 😉

  5. Friday, 22 February 2008 7:29 pm

    I think a lot of recipes are one cup shy of needing to separate the challah. I have one on my blog, look in the side bar for Challah Recipe and don’t be offended by the recipe title: Shiksa’s Guide to making Challah. I learned how to bake challah before I’d converted or ever seen challah.

    Mazel Tov on your baking success!

  6. Frume Sarah permalink
    Sunday, 24 February 2008 11:59 am

    Babka — just got your recipe off your blog. I’ll give it a shot this week.

    Leah — thanks! I think that you are right about most recipes being about a cup shy. So that does beg the question — is the mitzvah meant for the contemporary housewife or reserved for the industrial baker???

    The challah passed the ultimate test; MomGiraffe and DadGiraffe liked it!!!

  7. Sunday, 24 February 2008 1:30 pm

    After you bake Babka’s, try the recipe in my book “Adrienne’s challah” that won the best tasting challah contest at my synagogue. Her uncle is a baker and it’s his recipe (I think the secret to her recipe is brown sugar).

    And, a reporter from the Atlanta Jewish Times told me she just squeezes a huge dollop of honey into her dough. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds yummy!

    And…I can’t wait till next week (this week!) I really, really, really need to practice my speeches more.

  8. Frume Sarah permalink
    Sunday, 24 February 2008 3:11 pm

    Mm…honey…that does sound yummy. Would be awesome for a Rosh Hashanah challah….

    DadGiraffe had a cheese sandwich on my challah today and told me he was so proud that I’d baked my own challah. Yay 😉

    Can’t wait to see you on Thursday!!

  9. Monday, 25 February 2008 1:37 pm

    Babka Nosher’s recipe is DELISH. I used a different recipe before hers and liked hers better so now I use hers. (With a little more salt because we love salt in our bread!) It makes 2 nice sized loaves and only uses 3 cups of flour.

    I love that you said it made you feel connected to generations of Jews before you because that is how I have always felt when I am making challah. Such a wonderful feeling!

    Mazel tov on your first challot!

  10. Gerald Fleischmann permalink
    Tuesday, 26 February 2008 11:11 am

    Dear Frume Sarah,

    I’ve been a challah fan forever, but until the automatic breadmaker craze hit, I never had the koach (or patience) to actually make one. My earliest recipe resident on my computer goes back to 1993. But now, I will add a step for taking challah.

    Here it is, and it can really get fancy, especially for festivals, Thanksgiving, etc., with many added morsels. But it is a crowd pleaser.

    (Note: I originaly customized it for a Welbilt or DAK bread maker, which has died of old age and natural causes. I now use an Oster, and the same recipe still works.)

    Ger’s Challah Recipe, with Variations

    1 pkg dry active yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
    3 cup unbleached flour (or white)
    1 cup better for bread flour
    1/2 tsp salt
    1/4 cup + 1/2 Tbsp honey (or sugar)
    1 1/8 cup water (subst up to 4 oz milk for finer
    texture and longer freshness, if needed)
    2 Tbsp veg oil (olive, canola, corn, etc.)
    3 fl oz egg-beater (or 1 1/2 lg egg, beaten;
    or 3 ex lg egg whites + yellow color)

    0ptions (usually only one per recipe, but I always cheat here, adding as many as four! Caution: This complicates rolling and braiding, below, but yum!):
    3/4 to 1 cup raisins (light, dark, or mixed);
    or dried cranberries; or sunflower nuts
    (raw, roasted); or diced dried apricots, figs,
    etc.; or other diced nuts

    Extra flour – for table top during shaping
    Extra oil – to coat baking pan (or use teflon)
    Egg white (or yolk) – reserve for topping
    Poppy seed (or sesame) – for topping
    1. Add all ingredients (yeast first, then dry, then wet). “White-Manual” setting; start. (2 hr 13 min cycle.)
    2. Turn out dough on table top. Will make one large or two small loaves. For one large loaf, skip step 3.
    3. Cut dough into two equal lumps for two small loaves. Follow rest of steps for each lump.
    4. Cut dough lump into four equal parts. Roll each into a long, thick rope, tapered at the ends.
    5. Cut the “oddest looking” one into three equal weight ropes, and roll each out into a thin rope to be the same length as each of the three remaining thick ropes.
    6. Lay the three thick ropes side by side. Gently braid them from the center to one end, then from the center to the other end. Repeat for the thin ropes. Place thin braid on thick braid and lay it on oiled pan.
    7. Coat with egg, then seeds. Set in moist, warm area for 25 minutes to rise. (Or cover with damp, light cloth; tricky not to stick dough to it.) Preheat oven 325°. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Test for done-ness by inserting a toothpick. (If dough sticks to toothpick, bake a little longer.) Remove to cool.


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