On a Friday afternoon Lisa Spiegel throws a heft of sweet, yeasty dough onto her kitchen counter and asks, “What do you want to be?”
For almost 20 years, Spiegel has been baking challah in her kitchen every Friday in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath, which is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday until three stars appear in the Saturday night sky.
For many years, she made traditional challah, six simple strands of braided dough. But inspired by other bakers on Instagram, Spiegel has started getting more creative in the last year.
“I never know what I’m going to make,” Spiegel says, “whether a loaf to look like something — a heron or guitar — or just a lovely swirly braided challah. There’s an element of inspiration.”
Last summer when she vacationed in Maine, she created a challah lobster and octopus. When she visited friends in Spain during a festival called Fias, in which women wear elaborate braids, Spiegel created challah that was a nod toward their festive hair. After her sons rode a camel in Israel, she made them camel-shaped challah.
She often makes challah for family and friends. For her cousin’s wedding, she made two giant challah hearts.
“It feels like a gift, you know?” Spiegel observes. “It’s beautiful and delicious. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
On this Friday, Spiegel decides to make a woven basket holding stalks of wheat to mark Shavuot, a Jewish holiday recognizing the wheat harvest in Israel, when people brought their first fruits to the temple in baskets woven of gold and silver. The faithful also recognize it as the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.
Using her palm to flatten the dough, Spiegel cuts it into small pieces. Then she rolls a chunk between her palms to elongate a strand of dough, much as a child works with modeling clay. Next she deftly weaves strands in and out to create a basket.
To create stalks of wheat, Spiegel cuts three long strips of dough, holds them aloft with one hand and spins them in the air until they twist into a braid. She attaches one braided stalk to the basket and then another. As she adds stalk after braided stalk, abundant wheat appears to spill from the basket in a celebration of harvest.
“It’s all about abundance,” Spiegel says. “Challah is not just pretty and delicious. It’s part of our tradition.”
Challah is a Jewish tradition dating back many centuries, but it was not a tradition in Spiegel’s reformed Jewish family when she was a girl. It wasn’t until her three sons were attending Jewish preschool that she began baking challah every Friday in preparation for her family’s Sabbath. Her sons, Jonathan Morasch, Noah Morasch and Ben Morasch, grew up helping their mother make challah. Now they are adults who make their own challah.
Spiegel and her friend, Jen LeBow in Pennsylvania, developed their challah recipe long distance via email. They both made challah, compared notes, refined the recipe, made more challah, and tweaked it. Again and again. Friday after Friday.
Looking down at the challah basket of wheat stalks, she says, “It’s an artistic expression. I’m trying to show some movement to the wheat.”
Spiegel continues adding braids as she talks. She adds more dough. And more still to make the challah loaf thicker, more substantial. Stalk after stalk adds depth to her creation until finally, she has enough wheat. Well, maybe just one more. And another.
Creating challah is a process for Spiegel, who spends about two hours every Friday braiding, weaving and creating two loaves. Per tradition, two loaves of challah placed on the Shabat table symbolize the double portion of manna the Jewish people received from God when they spent 40 years wandering in the desert after they left Egypt.
Spiegel, who owns an association management firm, works from home with clients from all over the country. Even though her work week is busy, on Friday, she makes time for challah.
“The time I spend working with the dough is a treasure I look forward to each week,” she says. “Making challah is part of my religious practice and tradition, and I get to share it.”
Once a month, Spiegel gathers with friends from Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland for a Shabbat dinner. Everyone contributes a special dish. Spiegel always makes the challah.
Recipe developed by Lisa Spiegel and Jen LeBow.
4½ heaping cups all-purpose flour
2¾ teaspoons yeast
1½ teaspoons salt
Scant ½ cup sugar
5½ tablespoons butter
4 large eggs plus enough water to total 1½ cups liquid (save an egg yolk to brush onto the challah just before you bake it to make it shiny)
Combine room temperature ingredients in bread machine (in the order directed by the manufacturer) and let it run its dough cycle or use a convention method for making the dough by hand or mixer. Then punch it down, knead it and braid it.
Turn on oven to lowest setting for a minute or so, turn it off, and let the challah rise in the warm oven for about 36 minutes. If your finger leaves an indentation when pressed to the dough, it’s done proofing (rising) and is ready to bake.
Brush it with an egg yolk mixed with a splash of water. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until done. Thump the bottom. You can hear from the uniform sound that it’s done.
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On the Web
Follow Lisa Spiegel’s challah creations on Instagram: lisachapter58