In the Spring Issue of Sift, blogger Molly Yeh shares her love of challah and her quest to recreate the loaves she took for granted while living in New York City. Her new book, Molly on the Range, chronicles her time at The Juilliard School and her transition to life on a farm in North Dakota after marrying her husband. The book has more than 100 recipes inspired by everything from her hometown of Chicago to her love of Israeli street food. But we'll let Molly tell you about baking with challah dough herself.
The reasons I love challah are the same reasons I love a fluffy, freshly groomed puppy: it's cuddly soft, always there for you, and you can train it to do all sorts of tricks. Challah has long been one of my favorite foods, ever since I was little when it was one of the only foods that I would eat at dinner parties. Over the years it has morphed into different shapes and forms. It's been stuffed with cheese and marzipan (not at the same time, ew!), and I've discovered that it really takes some effort to screw up a batch of challah dough.
The joys of baking with challah dough
Growing up, the thought of ripping into and destroying a puffy, golden, braided loaf was what got me through long synagogue services. At summer camp, Shabbat services ended with a mad dash to the dining hall. My bunkmates and I would make a sport out of challah-eating, amassing a mountain of crust in the center of our long table because, according to my best friend Gigi, "If you don't eat the crust, that's fewer calories."
All of the Jewish holidays, in my mind, were classified into either challah holidays (okay, "challahdays"), or matzoh ball holidays, like Passover. While I love matzoh balls, there are truly no words more beautiful than "hot buttered challah." (If you add the words "with salami," all bets are off.)
As I aged into my 20s and got my first apartment in New York with an itsy-bitsy, closet-sized kitchen, I began alternating between buying challah at any one of the many grocery stores and delis that lined the city blocks, and making it using my mom's recipe. This resulted in my roommates believing I was some kind of bread wizard. The kneading and braiding came naturally to my hands, and the thought of using eggs, sugar, and a large pour of oil to liven up the texture and flavor just made sense.
When I moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, and had the fierce realization that a loaf of soft, eggy Zomick's challah was no longer one stop away on the 2/3 train, I began making it like it was going out of style. It was a challah-less world and I was sent here to change that.
And it was then that I discovered using rye or wheat flour will yield a loaf that has a life of its own, and that throwing a pile of seeds into the dough to make a "seeduction" loaf will please even my healthiest family members.
I learned that it can be steamed into little bao buns or fried into sufganiyot, braided into babka, or waffled into a liege-like treat. It took moving far away from home to learn this, but I quickly saw that the ways to play with a batch of challah dough, like the sugar beet farm field outside my door, are endless and delicious.
Challah is my safety-blanket dough. I use it for everything from doughnuts to babka to monkey bread. The sweet, tender crumb is adaptable to just about any shape or filling.
Pimento Cheese Babka
Inspired by the iconic babka at Zabar's in New York City, this squishier textured, more savory approach to babka uses my basic challah dough. The filling is that Southern staple, pimento cheese, because mayonnaise and cheese are a match made in guilty-pleasure heaven.
This delightfully soft loaf is guaranteed to make you swoon. Slightly sweet, packed full of seeds and other flavorful crunchy bits, it more than lives up to its sultry title. You can shape it into a traditional braid or a more swirly shape, depending on your preference.
Za'atar Monkey Bread with Garlic and Onion Labneh
These fluffy herbed balls of bread are both comforting and delightful, almost like a savory doughnut hole. A heaping pile of garlic and onions is folded into labneh for a dip that's reminiscent of the onion-y chip dip of your youth.
Thanks again to Molly Yeh for these recipes. We hope you'll give baking with challah dough a try. It really is great fun to handle and to work with. Use the comments section below to let us know what shapes and flavor combinations you come up with!