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Long Island woman teaches local community how to make challah

Brocha,Teldon, a challah maven, shares her recipe and techniques for making this special bread for Rosh Hashanah. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

It might be an understatement to say Brocha Teldon has a passion for challah. As the program director (her husband, Mendel, is the rabbi) at Chabad of Mid-Suffolk, she hosts weekly Shabbat dinners, always featuring this rich, sweet bread.

Testimonials to her challah’s superiority proliferate on her Facebook page. Rabbi Teldon estimates his wife bakes 350 pounds of challah a year — 4,550 pounds since they moved to Commack 13 years ago.

Anyone interested is invited into her home on Fridays to bake alongside her, learning traditions and techniques, and going home with a customized loaf as a thank you.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches on the evening of Sept. 20, we asked Brocha Teldon to share her recipe, which she kindly reduced to yield two loaves instead of her regular six. She also talks about what challah means to Jews on the New Year and all year round.

Q: What is the significance of challah on the Jewish table?

A: We always have challah on Friday night. The Sabbath is the culmination of the six days of the week, which is symbolized by the six braided strands of the bread. Challah has seven ingredients, each representing a day of the week, and each with a Kabbalistic meaning or motivation.

Q: Why is challah baked in a round shape for Rosh Hashanah?

A: A lot of the foods we eat on holidays have symbolic meanings. With the round challah for the New Year, we’re asking God to give us a life cycle of happiness with no end.

Q: What is the blessing on the dough?

A This is the interesting thing about challah. It’s not just about putting together the ingredients. The real mitzvah comes after the dough has risen. As we separate a piece of dough, we make a blessing. For Jewish women, it is very meaningful. We remember our matriarch Sarah, who made challah that stayed fresh for a week. And this gives us the opportunity to reflect on what has been going on with us for the past week, since we last had an opportunity to make the blessing on the challah dough. I used to call my mother at this moment to have a mother-daughter blessing. Now I do that with my daughter. It’s a time to talk to God and say what is on our minds, close our eyes, take an inventory, implore and ask. At Rosh Hashanah, we ask for a blessed year.

Q: And then you burn the small piece of dough? What is the significance of this?

A: In biblical times, every meal a Jewish family made, they gave a portion to the priests, who were not allowed to have other sources of income. If there was a fresh loaf of bread, they gave a part of it to the priest; if they slaughtered a cow, they gave part of it to the priest. Today, the holy temple in Jerusalem doesn’t stand, and we don’t have the opportunity to give a portion of our food to the priest. So we burn it instead, making inedible the portion that God commanded to be set aside.

Q: What are the traditions that go along with eating challah?

A: Eating food is considered a service to God. To purify ourselves before we eat bread or a meal, we wash our hands. This reminds us that we are not eating just because we are hungry. When you are mindful of what you eat, it becomes a way to connect with a higher power. The Bible describes how, when the Jews were in the desert, manna fell from heaven, but outside their camp, where they couldn’t go on the Sabbath. Part of the miracle of the manna was that on Friday, the manna fell for Saturday, too. This second portion was sealed with a layer of dew on the bottom and on the top to keep it fresh. At the table, we place two loaves of challah on a board and then cover it. This represents the two portions of manna, with protective layers underneath and above.

Q: Your 12-year-old daughter, Chanchie, once your assistant, is no longer an apprentice baker and has even shown you a few challah braiding tricks. How long have you and Chanchie been baking together?

A: While most moms think it’s helpful to keep kids out of the kitchen, I was different. I always let my kids help and let them add their own little twist on whatever I was making. Chanchie is my only girl. I have three boys, who hang out in the kitchen as well. But Chanchie just developed a flair for cooking and baking. To celebrate her bat mitzvah, we had a challah bake and 150 ladies came and baked with us. How many other 12-year-olds do you know who asked for a KitchenAid mixer as a bat mitzvah gift? Together, Chanchie and I came up with the idea of the topping bar. When people come and help us, they can pick what they want to put on top of their challah — seeds, onion, sugar, cinnamon sugar, mini marshmallows or chocolate chips.

Q: And now Chanchie is a budding challah entrepreneur?

A: Let me tell you how this happened. Every week we have lots of people come and help us bake. I’d have six loaves for between 10 and 40 guests. We didn’t always need so much, so we would gift a loaf to a friend, a neighbor, someone who needed it. People started requesting challah and offering to buy it. Chanchie had been asking me for a lemonade stand since she was 2, and I’d been saying no. She said, “What about a challah stand?” So we built the stand, she posted online that she was taking orders, and on the first Friday she baked and sold 22 loaves.

The significance of challah’s seven ingredients

According to Brocha Teldon:

1. Yeast, which allows the challah to rise, represents the pride in who we are as Jews.

2. Sugar represents the sweetness and happiness in our life, our kindness to each other.

3. Eggs represent the renewal of life.

4. Oil has an incredible capacity to permeate but also rise to the top.

5. Salt is indestructible and never spoils, like the eternal Jewish spirit.

6. Flour represents work. It starts off as wheat, and to come into our homes you have to imagine many steps, from growing wheat and harvesting it to milling.

7. Water prompts us to ask, is our soul hydrated with spirituality and connection?

BROCHA’S ROUND CHALLAH

1 1/3 cups warm water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar

2 large eggs

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons salt

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus extra for kneading

Sugar; cinnamon sugar; mini marshmallows and chocolate chips; chopped raw onion, poppy, sesame, pumpkin, or sunflower seeds (optional)

1. Combine the water, yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in a bowl. Set aside in a warm place for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Crack one egg into another mixing bowl and lightly beat. When the yeast is bubbly, add it to the egg and stir to combine.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, oil and salt. Add the yeast mixture and mix with a spatula until smooth. Stir the flour into the bowl in 3 additions, mixing well between additions, until you have a rough dough.

4. Knead on low speed until smooth and stretchy, 10 to 15 minutes. Alternatively, turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand until smooth and elastic, adding flour to the surface as necessary so the dough doesn’t stick.

5. Transfer the dough to a large, clean bowl and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let rise until doubled, 2 to 3 hours.

6. Punch down the dough to deflate. Pull off a small piece and make the blessing, if desired.

7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. Divide one of the pieces into 6 equal pieces and roll each of the smaller pieces into a rope 10 to 12 inches long. Lay three ropes parallel to each other on a work surface, leaving an inch between each rope. Lay one of the remaining ropes perpendicular to the three ropes, across the center, and weave it through the three ropes as if you were creating a lattice for a pie. Repeat with the remaining two ropes, one above and one below the first rope. Braid the edges on each side together, pinch and tuck under the loaf. Repeat with the remaining dough. Let stand on the countertop until slightly puffy, about 30 minutes.

8. Lightly beat the remaining egg and gently brush loaves with the egg. Sprinkle toppings over loaves, if desired. Place in 10-inch round aluminum baking pans. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before removing from pans. Serve warm. Makes 2 loaves.

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