By Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya | Image courtesy The Cooking Lab, LLC.
If there was ever a definitive guide to the bread world, we feel confident in saying it's likely to be the latest tome from The Cooking LabModernist BreadThis beautiful beast is five volumes of bread domination, with recipes and photographs that will forever change the way you bake (or, you know, consume). Since Hanukkah kicks off tomorrow, we've got challah on the brain—but how much do you know about its origins? Read up before you dig in. 

Many of us think of challah as a braided loaf of eggy, shiny, slightly sweet bread.


But the term “challah" doesn’t have anything to do with a bread’s appearance or even a specific kind of bread. Instead, it’s any kind of bread (lechem) that has been sanctified in a certain way.
 

The word comes from a reference in the Torah in which God instructs Moses to set aside a portion of each loaf and use it as an offering to local Jewish priests. The tradition is known as the separation of the challah. It’s still practiced, but in a slightly different form. Today, observant home bakers (as well as professional bakeries) take a piece of dough and incinerate it in the oven before baking their bread. Originally, the breads used in this kind of ritual were much simpler than the challah we see in bakeries today—that is, something more like pita bread. The term “challah” is applied more widely to mean any bread used in Jewish rituals. On the eve of Shabbat, two loaves are placed on the table to reference the Jewish teaching that a double portion of manna fell from heaven on Friday to last through the Saturday Shabbat. In the most common shape of challah, the braided strands form 12 “humps,” which are said to represent the 12 ceremonial loaves (shewbread) kept in the Temple in Jerusalem for the 12 tribes of Israel.  

For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, challah loaves are made in a circular or spiral shape for various symbolic reasons—depending on whom you ask, the round shape represents continuity, the wheel of the seasons, or a spiral of upward progress. Whatever the meaning, this Rosh Hashanah version is typically laden with raisins to symbolize a year of plenty.  



Excerpt adapted from Modernist Bread, courtesy of The Cooking Lab.