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Challah Hunting

February 7, 2014

Bread is one of my favorite things, but I don’t bake it at home. Much like espresso, I leave this troublesome task to the master craftsmen. That leads me to search out good versions of the stuff wherever I roam. And sometimes, it’s harder to find than others.

I love a great baguette with it’s crackly crust, open crumb and deep flavor. Really almost any bread with a crust that means business is going to make me smile. Which isn’t to say there is no room in my heart for soft dinner rolls, brioche or even popovers. But the one bread I eat more than any other is challah.

Challah is the bread that we eat every Friday night for shabbat. Part of the ritual observance is to try and create a special time and space within the home. So we gussy up the place a bit. At the Fussy household that means we change the table linens.

The bread plays an important role in this too. Instead of the plain hard loaves that one might have every day, this one is special. It’s sweeter, more tender, and beautifully braided. Now, what makes one challah better than another is clearly a matter of personal preference. However, I’m going to make the case for the style I think is best.

There are a lot of different challah styles. Leah the Nosher has documented a bunch of them, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to taste her hard work. Now if you grew up eating challah every Friday, it’s very possible the one you like best is the one with which you are familiar.

Some like to equate challah with brioche, but I think that’s a mistake. The braids of the challah aren’t just decorative, but they are also functional. I like my challah to be sweet, with a tender crumb that still maintains a bit of its doughy elasticity. When you pull a piece of it off, it should break along the braided strands.

Even bakeries that generally can produce a good challah don’t always pull off this high wire balancing act of texture. It exists only when the bread is lightly baked, as further cooking tends to dry out the interior.

Some people might say I like it under baked and criticize my prized loaf as gummy.

Regardless, when I go to buy a challah, I have to examine every loaf on the shelf. What I’m looking for is a dense loaf that’s light in color. The blonder the better.

Up in the Capital Region, I’ve found the best to be at the New Mont Pleasant Bakery in Schenectady. Sometimes they are amazing. Other times they are drier and more like bread than what I’m looking for in a good challah.

There are some other tempting loaves from other bakeries that may entice with their high braids or deeply burnished crusts. Those loaves are certainly handsome, but don’t be fooled by good looks. My favorite challah can looked squashed and pallid next to these well crafted beauties. Which isn’t to say other forms of challah don’t have their uses. Large airy challah with a firm crust can make exceptional French toast. Deeply burnished, dense loaves will make amazing grilled sandwiches.

However, if the goal is to get something on the table that’s opulent, I want that rich texture with a little chew that yields easily to a gentle bite. I want a loaf upon which spreading butter feels redundant, unnecessary, and decadent for decadent’s sake.

After a few tries I finally found such a loaf in Princeton. The irony is that it comes from New York. It’s called Zomick’s and it’s just about everything I want in a challah. The ingredients are simply sifted unbleached and unbromated wheat flour, filtered water, eggs, soybean oil, sugar, yeast and salt. Plus, it’s everywhere. I can get it at the Wegmans or the ShopRite. But I don’t think I have ever seen one up in the Capital Region.

If that’s indeed the case, this will be one of the top things on my list of what I’ll miss about living in New Jersey. And it’s time to start thinking about that too, since we’ve passed the halfway point of the sabbatical.

Where does the time go.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 12:32 pm

    Hello! I’ve just made my first challah (eggless) & I see what you mean about being able to see the braids when you break. That’s a satisfying sight indeed! I will check out the website you mentioned for other types. Thank you!

  2. Annie permalink
    February 7, 2014 10:55 pm
    Hopefully Zomick’s is continuing to clean up their bakery… Eek.

  3. Deedee permalink
    February 8, 2014 1:53 am

    A store-bought challah can be convenient especially for French Toast, but if you know how to make your own you are never stuck with something sub-standard. When you are back in the capital district I will be most happy to gift you a loaf or two of “Grandma Lillian’s challah” made with love in my kitchen just like my grandma taught me when I was a kid. Let me know when you want to cash in. After that, if you are so inspired, I will provide a private challah class just for you.

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