Apr 10, 2013

The Key to Challah

Traditionally, the Shabbos after Pesach is referred to as “Shlissel Shabbos” because of the eponymous challah we eat that day.    We decorate our challahs with a piece of dough shaped like a key or place an actual metal key inside each challah.  Some creative cooks cut their bilkelach using a large key-shaped cookie cutter.  While many have heard of this minhag and faithfully prepare their shlissel challah, some may not be familiar with its origins.  And, although this column is not where you would expect to pick up a bit of inyanei d’yoma, we thought it would be nice to enlighten our readers so they may pass on this wonderful tradition and its source to their children.  
Chazal tell us there is a shaar or gate for everything that we require from Hashem.  One of the most commonly knocked upon gate is that of parnassa or sustenance.  We always bear in mind that our livelihood is dependent on the one above.   Hence a key, to open the gate to receive generous help from Hashem.   Pesach was when B’nai Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael and no longer received the mon to sustain them.  All at once they were required to ask for their daily bread.  So once again they approached the shaar of sustenance with a key. Our shlissel commemorates that request and the knowledge that we continue to be reliant on Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Pesach is also the time of the new wheat harvest.  The harvest symbolizes our earnings for the coming year.   A good harvest meant people would eat well all year; a failed crop could be the forecaster of famine and death.  When the Yidden were makriv the Omer in the Bais Hamikdosh, many heartfelt t’filos went along.  Nowadays, we use the symbol of the key to remind Hashem to once again open the gates of sustenance for us.
If you have never baked challah, now is a good time to start.  Following our recipe makes it easy.  While scores of our readers are talented balabustas who have been baking challah for years and have always stood by their recipes; we are proud to say that many a seasoned cook has tried our recipe and switched. 
Our challah recipe calls for instant yeast; the yeast that does not require rehydrating. This yeast is simply added to the flour in your bowl—no need to dissolve. Don’t confuse “instant yeast” with “active dry yeast” which does need to be rehydrated before adding other ingredients.  
Like active dry, instant yeast is made by drying fresh yeast so that some of the cells die and form a protective layer around the still-living cells. That layer of dead cells is thinner in instant yeast than in active dry. That means that it can be added to the dough directly, without the rehydration that active dry requires. This makes it good for bread machines, but it’s also useful for speeding up your challah baking. It cuts the rising time in half! We like Fleishman’s instant yeast as it yields consistent results.
Instant yeast has shelf life of two years if unopened and 6 months in the refrigerator or freezer once the package is open.
If your grocery does not sell hi gluten bread flour or bakery flour, you may also want to purchase it from your local bakery rather than using bread flour off the supermarket shelf.  It will probably be fresher and yield better results.  Either way; be sure to sift it for a lighter texture.

5 pounds hi gluten flour, bakery flour or bread flour

3 tablespoons instant yeast

3/4 cup sugar
5 cups warm water
3 extra large eggs or 4 large eggs
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 egg yolks plus 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
sesame or poppy seeds

Sift the flour into your mixer bowl. Add the instant yeast and sugar. Stir to combine.   Add eggs and oil.  Add the water and add the salt last.    Mix at medium speed for 10-12 minutes. 
Remove dough from the mixer bowl and allow to proof (rise) in a large bowl covered with plastic wrap for 45 minutes.  Take “challah.”
Divide dough into 5 equal parts.  To be really precise, you can weigh each piece on a scale and check that they are equal.
Using one of the 5 pieces, divide it into 6 equal pieces, once again weighing, if you want them to be exactly the same size.  Knead each piece lightly and roll into a strand approximately 6 inches long.  Place all 6 strands on Silpat or lightly floured counter top.  Pinch all the strands together at the top.  Use our easy to follow braiding method to braid six strands. 
1.      Pick up the first strand on the right and move it two places toward the center, placing in between the third and fourth strands. 
2.      Take the second strand from the left and bring it to the extreme right—that is over all the other strands
3.      Pick up the first strand on the left and move it two places toward the center, placing it between the third and fourth strands.
4.      Take the second strand for the right and bring it to the extreme left, over all the other strands.
5.      Go back to step 1 and continue with steps 2 through 4 until you have reached the end of the strands.
6.      Pinch together the strands at the bottom and tuck any longer pieces neatly under the challah. Some people like to cut the ends of the braid and tuck them under the center for a raised center in your challah. If you do that make sure to pinch the remaining braid strands together once again.
7.      Place in a greased-and-floured 1 pound loaf pan, a 10” or 11” oval challah pan. Stick a clean metal key into the loaf or use a small piece of dough to form an old-fashioned key.
8.      Allow the challah to rise for 30 minutes longer.  Whisk together 2 egg yolks and water and brush lightly over the entire surface of each challah.
9.        Put the challahs into a cold oven and set the temperature to 450 degrees.  After 15 minutes, lower the temperature to 350 degrees.  Bake another 35-40 minutes. 
Remove from oven and cool until you can comfortably touch the pans.  Remove the challah from the pans and continue to cool on a cooling rack to promote air circulation and keep the challah from becoming damp due to the condensation in the pan. 
To keep it crusty, store home-made challah in a brown paper bag—never in plastic.  If you prefer to bake your challah a few days in advance, wrap air-tight in plastic to ward off freezer-burn.  To rewarm, heat your oven to 350 degrees and then turn it off.  Place frozen challah in the hot oven for approximately 30 minutes.  They will crisp and defrost without drying out.

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