Cooking class: Let’s bake halla

Sweet or plain, round or elongated, nothing is as festive as halla baked at home.

halla bread (photo credit: Courtesy)
halla bread
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 cookbook.”
(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 in Paris.
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.”
These 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.
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 Sabbath.”
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 and turmeric.
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 bread.”
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 freeze it.
✔ 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 flour ✔ 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 large bowl.
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
with 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 minutes.
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 hands.
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.
Remove with rubber spatula to work surface.
Knead dough lightly to knock out air.
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.
Cover 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 190ºC.
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 cool.
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.
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 ✔ Salt ✔ 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 rack.

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.