Makes Me Wanna Challah

My misadventures in Jewish cuisine.

click to enlarge HAPPY CHALLAH-DAZE: The finished product - pleased the WASPs. - Laura Fries
Laura Fries
HAPPY CHALLAH-DAZE: The finished product pleased the WASPs.

My friend Lauren was hosting a Hannukah celebration — or "Jew night," as one irreverent Jewish guest insisted on calling it. She invited me along to get a feel for the real deal: latkes with sour cream, a roast chicken, challah and — a tradition from her family — fantastic collard greens.Latke-making is an art — one that I apparently cannot master. It seems simple enough: Peel and grate some spuds. In large handfuls, grab the grated potato and squeeze it over the sink, releasing all the water. Squeeze a little lemon over the mess to keep it from browning.

For each potato you've grated, add an onion, grating it on the medium side of a box grater. Add in two to three eggs for six potatoes, and a sprinkling of flour. This will create a goopy mixture, slightly yellow in appearance. Lightly salt and pepper, if desired.

Get some oil going in a pan — about an inch or so. Take a handful of the potato mixture and press it onto a spatula, draining it slightly as you shape the patty. Ease each latke into the hot oil, where it will fry until crispy, four to five minutes per side. When golden and delicious, remove and drain on paper towels.

Lauren's latkes were spectacular — crisp on the outside, tender and potatoey in the middle, with just enough hint of onion. Mine were not so terrific. I tried to fancy them up with unpeeled potato (more vitamins!), grated granny smith apples (great texture! More sweetness!) and some scallions (they're pretty!), but somewhere along the line, I missed a crucial step. I ended up making some really crispy hashbrowns. They were good, but they weren't latkes. As Jewish co-worker Max commented acidly, "What, did you think you could just be Jewish overnight?"

Given my success with the latkes, you'd think I'd have steered clear of any more cooking that required either religious conviction or cultural history. But no, I attempted the challah. Pronounced like the hip-hop mantra "holla!" this baked goodness requires ungodly amounts of sugar and eggs. I'll skip relaying the recipe to you; I found it on Epicurious.com. Essentially, you start with a big foaming mix of yeast and sugar, beat together a ton of eggs, water and more sugar, and add it to the mix. Here is where it gets tricky. "Add enough flour to form a smooth dough" is a pretty vague instruction. I'm a pretty decent baker. I thought I could handle this. I was wrong. I added, and added, and added. The mixture ate up each round of flour greedily. Finally, when the mixture seemed to have some substance, I poured it out onto my floured workstation. It seized the opportunity to escape and started to ooze toward the floor, at once a liquid and a solid. It was alive!

Anxious to save my handiwork, I scooped up the edges of the dough. The yeast, on a mad sugar rush, went for my hands. The gluten from all the flour I'd added had become activated; like a tightly coiled wire, it resisted being pulled apart. Try as I could to extricate myself, I just made it worse, literally sealing my fate. My biceps burned with the exertion.

Finally, I realized that the dough stuck to itself above all else. Knowing this, I began to throw it against the counter, where it finally stuck. Rubbing my hands together, I was able to ball the sticky dough off my hands, and slap it back down onto the larger mass still seething on the counter.

From there things went smoothly enough. The remaining dough happily rose, was punched down, and rose again. With some handiwork, I formed three coils, and braided them together in the traditional shape. An egg wash and a baking later, my challah was ready for the office, and the critical tastebuds of Max. I got praise from the WASPs, but from Max: "Hmm. It's too sweet. It should be flaky." Oy vey. [email protected]

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