The Best Challah, as in Ever?

There are those who love challah, and there are others who find the varnish-crusted eggy loaf too insipid, too soggy, and often too sweet.

My family and I have long belonged to the latter camp. For years, every Friday, we would buy two shellacked, knotted loaves. After the blessing over the challah was recited, each family member would take a small, dutiful tug of bread. The birds would get the rest – if the Labradors didn’t grab it first. The waste shamed us, but what could we do? Tradition, right?

Then, one day earlier this summer, I was having coffee with my friend Bruno Francois, who runs the Old Third winery near our Canadian summer lake house in Prince Edward County, Ontario. (Subscribers may remember his partner Jens’ perfect crepe recipe for Shavuot, our answer to the blintz).  Mid-summer is a relatively quiet period for a winemaker, and the always energetic Bruno now occupied his time with a new obsession: bread-making. Specifically baguettes.

The baguette is of course the Holy Grail of breads, especially if you are French and have highly specific opinions about quality of crust, interior, and the minutes a loaf is considered fresh before it is tossed to birds and Labradors.

“I spent six months researching how to make them,”  Bruno said.

A friend of Bruno’s and Jens’ had recently parked a homemade wood fire oven on their property, and it was currently being used to make pizza for weekend wine tasters. After he mastered the dough, Bruno had the brainwave of trying to cook it in the pizza oven.

How good was Bruno’s baguette? The result was like no baguette I’d ever tasted, even in Paris, even in the French countryside. Bruno placed two loaves on the table with a plate of hand churned butter.  I primly suggested I was on a carb diet (true), and would just have a small bite. My husband said the same. Within fifteen minutes there were only crumbs left: we’d ravaged them as eagerly and as thoroughly as any two Labradors falling upon stolen stale challah.

“I don’t care how many pounds I just gained,” I murmered, completely satisfied. “It was worth it.”

At that moment the idea came to me to try making challah the same way – in a wood fire oven.  Maybe with a scorched, rustic crust this weekly bread of affliction might be more like … a baguette? Bruno was immediately game. He’d never made challah before, but that only made it more of an exciting challenge for him.

We scheduled a day to make the bread and in advance researched multiple recipes for challah.  Despite claims by the authors that theirs was a family recipe passed down through generations of rebbetizin yadda yadda, all the recipes (and results) looked basically the same: eggy Wonderbread. The methodology, too, didn’t differ much between them. But I had a secret ingredient that none of the others had: a super-competitive French baking fiend with a wood fire oven. Bring on the revolution. Bruno and I were going to nail this thing.  And, by Gosh, we did…

Bruno weighs the flour. He dismissed the recipes’ call for “cups” saying  
“Most recipes that are serious about baking measure the ingredients by weight.”

On B-Day, as I called it, I arrived in Bruno’s kitchen with the best ingredients I could find, rounded up from local farm markets (fresh eggs, local wild honey etc.). Bruno placed a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on his nose and examined the recipes for challah I’d downloaded. He frowned.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“A serious baking recipe measures the ingredients by weight, not volume – kilos, not cups.”

“Why?” I asked him. If I haven’t already admitted it, I am a wretched baker. It’s all chemistry to me. And I’m lousy at chemistry.

“Basically it’s the difference between things turning out and not turning out,” he said, waving his hand. “A cup measurement is sloppier. There is humidity that can change the volume. So many reasons.”

Bruno rummaged in a cupboard and produced a beautiful set of antique scales. From then on I simply watched him work (except to pass him ingredients or tools): He poured, he measured, he frowned again, he glanced at a recipe, scowled, paused, visibly had an idea, paused a second time, adjusted. He noted that the recipes did not allow “for the autolytic process.” I was hesitant to ask for an explanation, but, in the interest of science, I did.

“When you make a baguette, you add water to the flour and let it sit for 30 minutes. This allows the structure of the wheat cell to break down – and to require less kneading.” I passed him some of the Kosher salt that was called for in the next step. He waved it away.  “I don’t add salt until the flour has had a chance to rest in the liquid ingredients. Let’s wait until after the autolytic process.”

Bruno waited for approximately 10 minutes before he was satisfied with the texture of the dough.  “I would describe it as supple,” he said, as I grabbed my pen to write this pronouncement down. Afterwards, there was nothing to do but to wait a couple of hours for the dough to rise.  I went off on a bike ride. On the return, I was delayed by a severe headwind. By the time I’d belatedly arrived, Bruno had already divided the dough and braided two magnificent loaves.  I performed the last step: painting the braids with mixed egg and sprinkling them with poppy seeds.

“Bruno, the recipe said this would be enough for four loaves…” I said a little reproachfully, glancing at his two-foot long twisted masterpieces.

He shrugged. “I don’t know how large challah is supposed to be.”

Here we are with our first challah, ready to go in the wood fire oven. Bruno did not
get the memo on the average size of a challah loaf. 

Going In! 

Within 20 minutes, the challah has gone from a pasty Eastern-European
to a deeply tanned, gorgeous loaf of bread.

Somehow we managed to transfer the two huge raw loaves onto his long wooden bread board. We balanced the challah across his lawn and crossed a small country lane to the wood oven, in which Bruno had carefully nursed a fire to reach the correct temperature of 350-degrees. He jerked and yanked the board expertly so that the lumpy dough slid neatly into the fiery interior. Now all we could do was wait and see if the challah would survive the inferno. Bruno vanished into his tasting barn and extracted a bottle of cider, something his vineyard now makes in addition to its celebrated red, white, and sparkling Pinot Noirs. We nervously toasted the challah, like two expectant parents.

Twenty minutes later, Bruno withdrew a rather scorched looking loaf. We raced it on the board back across the lane and lawn to his kitchen. My son Nathaniel and his visiting college friend, Joe, had just driven up with one of our Fig Tree & Vine “Modern Rustic” challah boards, on which I intended to photograph the finished product.  Their timing was perfect. Their young, hungry eyes gleamed at the warm loaf of bread as we set it on the counter.

Bruno fetched his bespoke butter.

Six minutes later the magnificent, two-foot-long challah was but a pile of crumbs and stray poppy seeds. Joe said, “I’m not a ‘member of the tribe,’ but … this was maybe the best bread I’ve ever had.”

And so it was.

Here was challah re-invented – or maybe even challah as it was before the advent of the electric stove: a crusty loaf scorched purple from the heat of the fire, with a sinewy, tasty interior – not too sweet, not too eggy, just …  perfect.  I took some home for my husband, who hates challah even more than most challah-haters.

“It’s still warm,” I coaxed, pushing it at him.  And before I knew it, he’d devoured it too.

It’s unlikely that you’ll have any leftovers. But if you do, this same challah also lends itself to the world’s best grilled cheese – a recipe I’ve also gained from Bruno.

But please note: Even if you don’t have a wood fire oven, Bruno’s recipe will adapt easily to a regular one. It is the definitive recipe. If you make challah any other way, stop now. I don’t care how many generations of Rabbis it comes from.