Halla was the first bread I baked. I was surprised at how easy it was,
considering I was a complete novice in the kitchen and had never seen anyone
make one; my mother baked delectable cakes but didn’t bake bread. When I
mentioned to her that I’d like to try making halla, she advised me to use her
friend Dvora Pohl’s recipe for sweet halla. “Dvora makes the best halla,” my
mother said, “and you can find the recipe in our organization’s
(The book is What’s Cooking Around the World? by Chug Tzameret
of Ezrath Nashim in Jerusalem.) I simply followed the instructions and actually
got a real halla that tasted delicious.
Gradually I became confident
enough to make changes in the recipe. A note I handwrote in the book says, “I
like to use 3 tablespoons sugar” instead of the cup that was called for, since I
prefer halla that is not as sweet. Over time I developed my own version, after
experimenting and learning from friends and from chefs at bread-baking lessons
Halla is so central to the Shabbat meal that it’s odd to think
that this wasn’t always the case. Our familiar halla originated in the 15th
century, wrote Gil Marks in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, when Jews in
Austria and southern Germany adopted an oval braided Teutonic loaf, which soon
“became the most popular form of Ashkenazic Sabbath bread.” White flour was
important, as it was considered the flour for royalty and fit the theme of
“Shabbat, the Queen.” Eventually oil was added to replicate “the ingredients of
the breads prepared in the Temple. Eggs and, less frequently, a pinch of saffron
added to the dough simulated the yellow color of cooked manna.”
developments had other advantages.
“Braiding, besides adding an
attractive appearance, has a practical usage, keeping bread fresh for slightly
longer,” wrote Marks. Adding more oil and eggs gave the loaves a softer texture
and richer flavor. Sugar was added only in the early 1800s, when sugar-beet
refining factories became common in eastern Europe and because “sweeteners are
symbolic of the taste of manna.”
Not all Ashkenazim made these rich
breads. “Unlike Austrian and Polish halla, German ‘barches’ (as their Shabbat
breads were called) were made from a lean dough containing no oil or eggs and
possessed a distinct sourdough flavor.” This lean loaf became known as water
Halla dough is a pleasure to work with and lends itself easily to
variations. In her new book, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, Joan Nathan presents
a Moroccan anise-flavored halla shaped as a twisted spiral and sprinkled with
roasted sesame seeds.
Nathan noted that in Alsace, France, in some
19th-century versions of halla, “boiled potatoes were substituted for some of
the flour in the dough, perhaps to help preserve the loaf over the course of the
You can make halla to your taste as moist, rich and sweet as
you like, or with all or part whole-grain flours. I like to use halla dough to
make other breads too, both savory ones flavored with cheese or spinach puree,
which are great for sandwiches, and sweet breakfast breads with dried fruit and
nuts. Freda Reider, author of The Hallah Book, makes a halla with dates, date
sugar and grated lemon zest, with a small proportion of whole wheat and barley
flour. She use spices too. Her saffron halla is flavored with walnut oil and
chopped walnuts; her three-seed halla has crushed coriander in addition to
sesame and poppy seeds; and her almond halla is flavored with cinnamon, ginger
Halla dough is easy to make by hand, but it’s faster to
make with a mixer with a dough hook or a food processor. When I have time, I let
the dough rise three times, for the lightest texture: once after mixing and
kneading, once after a second brief kneading and once after shaping. Many people
skip the second rising, or set the bowl of dough in the refrigerator to do the
second rising overnight.
My neighbor Valerie Alon makes wonderful halla
using a bread machine. She puts all the ingredients in the machine and lets it
“do its magic.” Her dough, made with part whole-wheat flour and studded with golden raisins, is mixed,
kneaded and rises in the bread machine.
All she needs to do is shape the
halla, let it rise again and bake it.
There are several good reasons to
bake your own halla. Some find that it saves money. Baking halla certainly is
enjoyable, especially when the weather is cold; it’s lovely to be in the warm
kitchen smelling the bread baking. In addition, few foods taste as good as warm
halla fresh from the oven. Perhaps the best reason is the one given by June
Roth, author of How to Cook Like a Jewish Mother, in the introduction to her
halla recipe: “Nothing says ‘I care’ as loudly as fresh-baked
BASIC HALLA Makes 1 medium loaf
You can make halla with
relatively little sugar, as in this recipe, or with a larger amount, following
the variation, for a more cake-like loaf.
The bread is best on the day it
is made but you can keep it, well wrapped, 1 day at room temperature; or you can
✔ 1⁄2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. warm water (41º to 46ºC)
✔ 7 gr. (21⁄2
tsp.) dry yeast or 17 gr. fresh
✔ 11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. sugar
✔ About 23⁄4 to 3 cups
all-purpose flour, or 1 cup whole wheat flour and 13⁄4 to 2 cups all-purpose
✔ 1⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
✔ 2 large eggs, room temperature
11⁄2 tsp. salt
✔ 1 egg, beaten with pinch of salt (for glaze)
✔ 2 to 4 tsp.
sesame seeds or 1 to 3 tsp. poppy seeds (optional)
Pour 1⁄4 cup of water
into small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over water. Sprinkle 1 tsp. of sugar over
yeast. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir if not smooth. Oil or
grease large bowl.To make dough by hand
Sift 23⁄4 cups of flour into
Make large deep well in center. Add yeast mixture, remaining
sugar, oil, eggs, remaining water and salt to well. Mix ingredients in well with
wooden spoon until blended. Mix in flour, first with a spoon, then by hand,
until ingredients come together to a dough. Dough should be soft and sticky.
Knead dough vigorously on work surface until very smooth and elastic, about 7
minutes; during kneading, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time if dough sticks,
adding just enough to make dough manageable.To make dough in mixer
dough hook Sift 23⁄4 cups of flour into bowl of mixer fitted with dough hook.
Make large deep well in center. Add yeast mixture, remaining sugar, oil, eggs,
remaining water and salt to well.
Mix at medium-low speed, pushing flour
in often at first and scraping dough down occasionally from bowl and hook, until
ingredients form dough that just begins to cling to hook, about 7 minutes. Dough
should be soft and sticky. Mix at medium speed, scraping down twice, until dough
is smooth, partially clings to hook and almost cleans sides of bowl, about 5
Pinch dough quickly; if it sticks to your fingers, beat in more
flour 1 tablespoon at a time until dough is no longer very sticky, and mix at
medium speed about 2 minutes. Dough should be soft, smooth and
elastic.To make dough in food processor
Combine 23⁄4 cups of flour,
remaining sugar and salt in food processor fitted with dough blade and process
briefly to mix them. Add yeast mixture, oil and eggs.
With blades of
processor turning, pour in remaining water. Process until ingredients come
together to a soft dough. It will not form a ball. Process for about 30 seconds
to knead dough. Pinch dough quickly; if it sticks to your fingers, add more
flour 1 tablespoon at a time until dough is no longer very sticky. Process about
30 seconds or until smooth. Remove dough and shape in rough ball in your
Put dough in oiled bowl and turn dough over to oil all surfaces.
Cover with warm, slightly damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm,
draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 11⁄4 hours.
rubber spatula to work surface.
Knead dough lightly to knock out
Clean bowl if necessary. Return dough to bowl, cover and let rise
again until doubled, about 1 hour.
Lightly oil a baking sheet. Knead
dough lightly on work surface, flouring lightly only if dough sticks. Shape
dough in rough cylinder and cut in 3 equal parts. Knead 1 part briefly and shape
in cylinder. Roll back and forth firmly on working surface, pressing with your
hands held flat and elongating cylinder from center to edges as you roll, to
form a smooth rope about 51 cm. long and about 2 cm. wide and tapered slightly
at ends. Repeat with other two parts. To braid dough, put the 3 ropes side by
side, with one end of each closer to you. Join ends far from you, covering end
of rope on your right side with end of center rope, then end of left rope. Press
to join. Bring left rope over center one. Continue bringing outer ropes
alternately over center one, braiding tightly. Pinch each end and tuck them
underneath. Set braided bread carefully on prepared baking sheet.
shaped loaf with a warm, slightly damp towel and let rise until nearly doubled
in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, position rack in center of oven and preheat to
Brush risen loaf gently with beaten egg and sprinkle with seeds.
Bake about 40 minutes, or until top and bottom of bread are firm and bread
sounds hollow when tapped on bottom. Carefully transfer bread to a rack and
Increase sugar to 3 or 4 Tbsp. Dough will require a few Tbsp. more flour. Dough will rise less and will take longer to rise. After baking loaf for 15 minutes, reduce oven temperature to 175ºC and continue baking as above, adding 2 or 3 minutes to baking time. If loaf browns too quickly, cover loosely with foil.
SAVORY SPINACH BREAD
Makes 1 medium loaf
This bread makes tasty sandwiches, especially with cheeses such as creamy goat cheese or well-flavored Swiss cheese.
Spinach puree makes this bread denser than other egg breads. The puree makes the dough sticky and it is therefore easiest to make in a mixer.
✔ 700 gr. fresh spinach, stems removed, leaves washed thoroughly
✔ 1⁄3 cup pine nuts
✔ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
✔ 3 medium garlic cloves, minced (2 tsp.) Basic Halla dough (see recipe above) made with
✔ 1 tsp. sugar, 5 Tbsp. oil and 1⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. water
✔ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil or 2 tsp. dried, crumbled
✔ 1 egg, beaten with pinch of salt (for glaze)
✔ 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds
Cook spinach uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat for 2 minutes or until tender. Drain, rinse with cold water until cool and drain thoroughly.
Squeeze by small handfuls until dry. Puree in food processor until finely chopped. (You will need about 2⁄3 cup puree.)
Preheat oven to 190ºC. Lightly toast pine nuts in a shallow pan in preheated oven 3 minutes. Transfer to plate and cool.
Heat oil in small saucepan over low heat. Add garlic and saute 1⁄2 minute. Add spinach and cook together 1 minute, stirring and breaking up spinach with wooden spoon to mixed in garlic. Transfer to bowl. Cool to room temperature.
When making dough, sprinkle the teaspoon sugar over yeast mixture. Make dough in mixer with dough hook or by hand, adding spinach mixture and basil with eggs. Dough will be sticky; if necessary, add a little extra flour during kneading.
Let dough rise twice.
Grease 23- x 13-cm. loaf pan. After dough has risen for second time, sprinkle pine nuts over dough in bowl and lightly knead to distributed them evenly in dough. Transfer to work surface. Pat dough to oval to obtain rough loaf shape.
Put in prepared pan and pat down so loaf is fairly even at top.
Cover with a warm, slightly damp cloth and let rise until nearly doubled
in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, position rack in center of oven and
preheat to 190ºC.
Brush risen loaf gently with beaten egg and sprinkle with seeds. Bake
until top and bottom of bread are firm and bread sounds hollow when
tapped on bottom, about 40 minutes. Turn loaf out of pan and cool on
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.