The Only Challah Recipe You Will Ever Need, Amen.

Shabbat Challah
Shabbat Challah

I consider myself a connoisseur of all things challah, but for whatever reason, the thought of producing my own always eluded me. After trying many a challah in my hometown, I found the unequivocally most aromatic, decadent, light and airy strands of braided dough at my local Cuban bakery, Porto’s. I am well aware that a Cuban bakery is not naturally the first place to come to mind when in search of the best challah in town, but trust me when I tell you that these people know bread. Sadly, a few years back, I moved to another part of town, and have since been chasing the memory of that yellow-tinged, sweet-as-honey loaf. On the rare occasion when I found myself in that part of town, my insides would do a little happy dance, since it was a forgone conclusion that I’d stop at the bakery. However, no nearby purveyor of fine baked goods was able to replicate the craving-inducing, funny sounding bread I so longed for. Therefore, I set on the challenge of finding a recipe to replicate it myself.

Close up of the detail on my 6-strand braided challah.
Close up of the detail on my 6-strand braided challah.

Deb Perlman, of SmittenKitchen.com fame, adapted a challah recipe from Joan Nathan, and I am pretty sure she hit the jackpot. After a bit of trial and error with her recipe,  I have found that what works best for me is to make smaller, more controlled batches, which in turn, yield smaller, more uniform loaves. Rather than follow her recipe to a tee, I always halve it now, and produce picture-perfect challahs to adorn my table or to gift to my ever-gracious neighbors. Much to my delight, many a Shabbat guest has mistaken my handiwork for its store-bought cousin…and I don’t usually jump at correcting their mistake.

This past Sunday was the final class in a series I taught at my synagogue on Jewish Holiday Cooking. While the previous classes featured dish upon festive dish typical for a number of Jewish holidays, this crowning jewel of a class was entirely devoted to the 6-strand braided loaf of challah.

My students' beautifully braided dough rises, waiting to be baked to golden perfection.
My students’ beautifully braided dough rises, waiting to be baked to golden perfection.

It was the perfect way to end the series, as many friendships were fostered in the class, and there was plenty of down-time for visiting while the dough was rising. Given my experience braiding challah, I warned my students that since this was their first time attempting the 6-strand braid, it may not look exactly as they expected, and that it only gets better with practice. As it turns out, my warning was for not, because they produced some of the most delicious challahs I’ve seen.

Challah class
Poppy and Sesame Seed Challahs made by my students.

By far, the best part of the class was the taste test. We all gathered around the table, noshed on several different varieties of freshly baked challah, and reminisced about our experience in the series. We laughed remembering silly mistakes that happened in the kitchen, and we shared stories about friendships that started there.

Chocolate challah
Chocolate Chip Challah, sprinkled with coarse sugar, prepared by my students.

With my students’ encouragement, I think I will likely teach the series again. Though, it will definitely be hard to top this group of students. They came from all walks of life, but shared a common enthusiasm for cooking. They impressed me with their skills, and even taught me a thing or two about their personal family’s cooking cultures. As I shared with them on the very first class, every family has their own culinary traditions, and I am honored that I got to share mine with them.

Holiday loaf
A High Holiday rounded loaf of challah, prepared by my students.

5.0 from 19 reviews
Traditional Challah
 
Author:
Recipe type: Side Dish
Cuisine: Jewish
 
Neighbors will come knocking when your house smells like this fresh-baked challah. Be warned.
Ingredients
  • 2¼ tsp dry active yeast
  • 1½ tsp plus ¼ cup sugar
  • ¾-1 cup warm water
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs, divided
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1½ tsp table salt
  • 4 cups flour (or less)
Instructions
  1. In the bowl of your stand mixer, add yeast, 1½ tsp sugar, and between ¾ to 1 cup of warm water, and mix until dissolved. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  2. Mix in vegetable oil, 2 eggs (1 at a time) and egg yolk, with remaining sugar and salt.
  3. Slowly add flour, ½ cup at a time.
  4. When the dough holds together, switch to the bread hook, and knead until smooth.
  5. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for at least 1 hour.
  6. Punch dough down, and leave it to rise again for 2 hours.
  7. You can now either make 1 large challah or 2 smaller challahs. To make one large challah, cut dough into 6 pieces, and roll into approximately 12 inch strands. Pinch the top of the strands together. Take the strand all the way to the right, and move it over to the left by 2 strands. Take the strand that is second to the left, and move it all the way over to the right. Take the strand that is all the way over to the left, and move it to the right by 2 strands. Take the strand that is second from the right, and move it all the way to the left. Repeat this process until the challah is completely braided. Pinch ends, and tuck them under the loaf. Place braided loaf on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  8. Use one egg to brush an egg wash over the top of the loaf.
  9. Let sit for one hour.
  10. Use another egg to brush a second coat of egg wash. (At this point, you can sprinkle poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or any other seeded topping you want).
  11. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown.

 

 

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Perfecto para Purim: Guava and Cheese Hamantaschen

If you live anywhere near southern California, then you know that the best bakery in town is Porto’s. This family-owned Cuban bakery specializes in everything from decadent confections and savory sandwiches, to picadillo-stuffed potato balls (my husband’s favorite) and the moistest, most egg-y challah this side of the Mississippi.Yes, you read that right. The best challah in town can be found at the Cuban bakery. No matter the time of day, there are always long lines filled with people aching to get their pastry fix. Sure, Porto’s carries the classic pastries familiar to their clientele, but if you want to get something authentic to their Cuban baking traditions, there is one obvious choice: The Refugiado (or Refugee), a delicately flaky strudel, filled with pungent guava and creamy cheese.

Porto's Guava and Cheese Refugiados
Porto’s Guava and Cheese Refugiados

I’m pretty sure that my family alone kept Porto’s in business for a good many years, as any life event worth celebrating featured these desserts, which is where I derived my theory on its peculiar name. Guava and cheese is a classically Cuban combination, and one eyes-closed  bite of a Refugiado transports any Cuban native to their motherland.  Essentially, It’s a taste of home, and it’s one that I desperately wanted to replicate in my new hamantaschen recipe.

Guava and Cheese Hamantaschen
Guava and Cheese Hamantaschen

My husband and I have been known to hop the Purim carnivals in town, searching for the perfect hamantaschen, so there was a little bit of pressure for me to find just the right recipe. After scouring my stash of cookbooks, and wading through my favorite blogs, I tested 3 different recipes for hamantaschen, but none of them came up to snuff.  I tackled my filling problem relatively quickly. My first batch used guava preserves, which didn’t hold up to the heat, and unceremoniously pooled from the dough. Then, I tried the heartier guava paste, and that seemed to do the trick, but I was still off on the dough. One batch, the dough was too soft, the next, too dry, and so on. Witnessing my flour-fueled displays of frustration (and tasting all three reject batches), my husband finally offered a suggestion: Get in touch with Marci.

Marci is a long-time family friend, who met my mother-in-law through their temple Sisterhood. She was also an official witness at my wedding, and signed the ketubah, which is currently proudly displayed in our living room.  According to my husband, nobody makes better hamantaschen than Marci, and it made sense to me to go straight to the source. When we connected, Marci explained that not even my mother-in-law had this recipe! Which, of course, explains why it was so absent from my combined family cookbook. As soon as Marci generously shared her winning dough recipe, I went to work, and wouldn’t you know it…my husband was right.

Preparing my hamantaschen.
Preparing my hamantaschen.

I mixed, rolled, cut, and folded this dough with ease, and it baked into perfect little guava and cheese hamantaschen! As a bonus, the recipe makes a ridiculous amount of dough, and I have a bunch left in my fridge, so I can play around with other filling options, soon.

The three-step folding of a hamantaschen
The three-step folding of a hamantaschen

 

 

 

Guava Paste
Even the container of guava paste shows an image of the classic pairing with cheese in its serving suggestion.

More hamantaschen

Even more hamantaschen

In case you were curious, here's a batch of the rejects.
In case you were curious, here’s a batch of the rejects.

5.0 from 2 reviews
Guava and Cheese Hamantaschen
 
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Cuban and Jewish
Serves: 72
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
 
Cultures combine in this delicate Purim treat.
Ingredients
For the dough:
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ orange, juiced and zested
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 4½ cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
For the filling:
  • Guava paste
  • Cream cheese
Instructions
  1. In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and the oil. Add eggs, and mix well.
  2. Add the juice and zest of ½ an orange, as well as the vanilla extract.
  3. In another bowl, sift together the salt, flour and baking powder, then add to the bowl with the wet ingredients, mixing only until everything is well combined.
  4. Split the dough into four sections, and wrap each section with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  6. Take one of the four sections of dough from the refrigerator, and on a lightly floured surface, roll to ¼-inch thick. Cut discs using a 2½-inch cookie cutter, and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
  7. Fill each disc with ½ tsp. of cream cheese and ½ tsp. guava paste.
  8. To mold the hamantaschen, fold over the three sides, creating a pinwheel look, interweaving the sides over each other. Slightly pinch the edges of each triangle.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes.
  10. Cool completely, and serve or store in an airtight container.
Notes
***Note: This recipe makes a very large batch, and can easily be halved or quartered.