This week’s travels via food brings me not to a specific place, but to different places within my memory.
The story of challah started in 2001 when I started medical school. I became friends with a Taiwanese girl who lived in the Shalom residential college at the University of New South Wales. In that carefree whimsical way of youth, we would spend long evenings and weekends hanging out talking about nothing in particular. This is when I first got to know this Jewish braided bread, served at the college dinners on Fridays. She would often take a little extra so I could taste this rich sweet treat too.
There’s a long gap in this story until I became a sourdough baker in 2017. My sourdough starter Barney was born in my kitchen, gathered from the local yeast in the air of Rapid Creek. Lots of people have askd me how Barney was born, but the honest truth is – he was born out of loneliness. I was living alone in a new city, I had no friends, I was struggling in a long distance relationship and I lacked the emotional energy to break out of my unhappiness. I needed a complicated hobby that required a lot of attention and could take up my weekends. Nothing better than sourdough baking could fit this description!
Watching dough grow brought me small glimmers of hope, and dealing with the dense unrisen bricks afforded understanding of life's imperfections. Sometimes the bread would spread out like a lax pancake on the counter, running over its edges before I could scoop it into any sort of baking vessels. At these times I would cry, a little for the bread and mostly for myself, my tears racing the dough as it flowed onto the floor. But even at their very worst, my loaves filled my kitchen with delicious smells and then still made fine bread crumbs. It may sound extreme, but learning to make sourdough helped me to climb out of the deep dark hole I was in. I got better at understanding the rhythms of sourdough, and I slowly found myself again. Once I emerged into the world, blinking in the blinding light of freedom, I found that bread helped me connect with others. Barney has been a constant presence in my life ever since.
At the end of 2018 I visited Toronto again for the first time since I left. I purportedly went to a medical conference, but spent more time with my friends than at the conference. I had brought a tiny bit of Barney with me to Toronto and together with Emily we made a new starter at her house, which she christened Barmily. Barmily has since died, but since she had given some of it to another friend she was able to resurrect the original Barmily. I showed her the steps to making a normal loaf and she took to it like a duck to water.
One night we were discussing what things I really wanted to bake, kind of like the baking bucket list. Suddenly I thought of the eggy challahs of Shalom college. Why not make a challah? I thought. Everything is possible.
We didn’t really understand the needs of challah then, but it still turned out better than we expected. It was so long by the time we finished braiding that we had to curve the ends in just to make it fit onto the baking tray.
Last year I visited Toronto again and by then Emily had perfected her challah approach, quite incredibly by eye without any sort of measurement. She also had a genius idea to add an extra yolk to the dough (makes it slightly yellower) and use the white for the wash.
Here is a challah that we made for her admin assistant Maria, a kind Italian woman. She and her husband lived in the outer suburbs of Toronto in a modest house full of memories and knickknacks. She has “her doctors” over for an annual feast in the winter and I was lucky enough to attend one of these in 2017 when I lived there. It was a super traditional dinner – we would start with a selection of antipasti, fresh bread, then soup, pasta, meat course, dessert and of course coffee. We went over again in 2019 and she put on a similar feast just for us – our Italian mamma and pappa in Toronto!
Last week was Rosh Hashanah. In a
strange year where life seems to have turned upside down, I decided
to try my hand at making a vegan challah for my friend B to take to her family gathering. She is not able to have the "normal" challah with eggs and honey, so it was nice to make a vegan version for her. I started out researching online recipes, but in the end I was distracted after work and "winged it".
Vegan Sourdough Challah
120g Sourdough starter, at peak activity
120g Aquafaba (from 1 can of chickpeas)
80g Soy milk or water, plus some extra
100g Sugar (can be less, but I used extra for RH)
600g Plain flour
Mix the sourdough starter, aquafaba and soy milk until well incorporated
Add the sugar and whisk to combine
Add the flour and salt, bring together to form a dough ball
Add some more water one tbsp at a time if the dough looks too dry
Rest for 30min then turn out onto a bench to knead
Approximately 10-15min of kneading is required, I did this in 3 bursts
It helps to rest the dough for ~10min between each kneading burst
This step is very important for gluten development, as this gives the final challah the characteristic soft texture.
The goal is to have a soft elastic dough with no lumps or stickiness – persevere and you will be rewarded!
Spray with oil and cover with cling wrap, rest till doubled in volume, approx 4-6hrs depending on room temperature
Tip the dough onto a well floured surface and separate into 4 parts, shape into balls and rest for 10min (makes it easier to roll)
If you wish to have plain challah, then roll the balls out into long logs ~40cm
If you wish to stuff the challah with raisins, roll the ball out into a flat rectangle, scatter with raisins and then roll up into the log form. If the dough shrinks, just roll it out again to the desired length
Plait into the round shape (I watched this Youtube video)
Preheat the oven to 200degrees.
Rest the dough until slightly puffed, approx 1hr (unfortunately I had to go to work for a while and the dough became over-proofed. If it rises too much it will turn into a big blob!)
Brush the dough with an “vegan eggwash” of soy milk and maple syrup, making sure to get inside the crevices
Scatter with poppy and/or sesame seeds. Bake at 200 deg for 30min till golden brown
Here is a crumb shot, soft and fluffy!
I dedicate this post to Barney, my sourdough starter. May we have many more special baking projects together!