Baking Challah

The room at the Orthodox Union Israel Center was set up for the baking workshop when we arrived
The room at the Orthodox Union Israel Center was set up for the baking workshop when we arrived

Last week I attended a Challah workshop, given by Saidel Baking Institute. Les and Sheryl Saidel did not charge for the three hour class. They said they were doing it in support of Jerusalem, then in the midst of a wave of terrorist attacks. That was a large donation on their part—all the ingredients for thirty women to make two challot each, plus the time they spent measuring everything in advance, and the workshop itself. Strictly speaking, it was not a communal baking event—we did not “take challah” and say the blessing. 

Les Saidel is one of more famous residents of Karnei Shomron, located in the foothills of the Samarian hills northeast of Tel Aviv. He specializes in organic breads, baking 50,000 loaves of bread a week in his home bakery. All bread is baked to order in his brick oven, and is delivered to homes and distribution points in the center of the country. Saidel’s products are not available in stores because that would require adding preservatives. Adding preservatives violates his personal code of healthy baking, and he refuses to use them.

 Baskets containing bite size samples of all the bread the Saidels bake sat on a table near the entrance to the room. During the course of the evening we all tasted several breads. And perhaps we came back for another taste. And maybe as we were about to leave, one last taste of a bread we particularly liked.  There was the standard white challah, New York rye, black Russian bread, and whole wheat challah. There was also spelt multigrain bread, oats with sunflower seeds, and sourdough. And then there was a basket of Rambam bread, a bread he developed himself.

At one time, some of his customers who had come from the US asked Les for Ezekiel bread. This is a bread made from a combination of grains discussed in the Biblical book of Ezekiel, and is claimed to be especially healthy. After doing some research on Ezekiel bread, he stopped. He realized that Ezekiel bread had already been invented. If he was going to bake and sell a specialty bread, he decided he should develop a bread of his own.

During his studies in Yeshiva in his native South Africa, he had always been impressed by the writings of Rambam. Rambam, also known as Maimonides, was a prominent 12th century physician and Torah scholar. Les turned to Rambam’s  treatise On the causes of symptoms. Using the information he found there, he developed the recipe for his Rambam bread. It contains whole wheat flour, whole rye flour, sesame, and several medicinal herbs, including rose hips. And it tastes fabulous.

Les Saidel explains the intricacies of bread baking
Les Saidel explains the intricacies of bread baking

While waiting for our dough to raise, Les explained the origin of challot as special Shabbat bread in 15th century Germany and Poland. He then discussed various grains used. Challah, the portion of bread set aside for the Cohanim when the Temple was standing, can be taken from bread made of one of five grains: wheat, rye, oats, spelt, or barley. Today we don’t set aside bread for the Cohanim because there is no Temple. Instead, when we make enough bread at one time, we take a bit of the dough and burn it. How much dough necessitates taking challah depends on which Rabbi’s opinions you follow. In general, if you make make bread using between 8.5 to 10 cups of flour, you take challah.

If you should forget to take challah and say the blessing when you shape the bread, and instead put it right in the oven, you can do it later. You take a slice of the baked bread and set it aside to burn. 

When the time came to shape the loaves, Les went around the room, helping us, In the written material he had given us, braiding with one to six strands of dough were diagrammed. I had always wanted to learn to do six strand  braiding but had never been able to puzzle out the diagrams in books. As Les wandered around the room helping people, I called him over. With his help, I got the six strands of my

The challot I made in workshop conducted by Les Saidel. On left, white flour, on right whole grain spelt challah
The challot I made in workshop conducted by Les Saidel. On left, white flour, on right whole grain spelt challah

wheat challah braided. Then I was on my own. With a little help from my neighbor, I managed a six strand braid for my spelt challah as well.

We all took our braided challahs home to bake. By the time I arrived home, my challahs had raised and were ready for the oven. They looked beautiful coming out of the oven.

On Shabbat, they tasted as good as they looked. By Tuesday every crumb had been eaten.

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