• Brooklyn Boy Bagels challah (Kylie Walker)Source: Kylie Walker
It's hard to resist the glossy, pull-apart lure of this much-loved Jewish bread - especially when driving home with a fresh loaf in the car, says Michael Shafran.
By
Kylie Walker

19 Jun 2020 - 2:51 PM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2020 - 2:55 PM

Michael Shafran calls his challah “the most dangerous bread we make”.

It turns out the owner of Sydney’s Brooklyn Boy Bagels bakery (loved not only for the top-notch authentic boiled bagels, but bread, pretzels and cookies, too) is referring to how hard it is to stop eating the soft, tear-apart braided “Jewish brioche” loaves.

It tempted him as a child and it temps him now.

“If we have extra [at the end of a shift] and I have it in the car, I tell myself I'm not gonna touch it until I get home and invariably along the way I've taken one piece and before I know it I've had half the loaf!”

“My mother's not around to tell me not to eat too much, so I just go right at it, no-one can stop me,” he laughs.

Shafran, who came to Australia from the US almost 20 years ago, says that when he was growing up, it was something she told him regularly at Shabbat dinners at his aunt’s house in Brooklyn.

“We would go to my father's sister’s, my aunt Marilyn, for Friday night dinner about once a month. We would start the meal with challah bread - traditionally you say the prayer of the over the bread before you start the meal… And my mother would always yell at my brother and me before dinner not to fill up on just challah, because we would love eating it before the meal. I still love eating it!

“My aunt was surrounded by really amazing Jewish bakeries in Brooklyn… so it was always fresh and beautiful, and we would tuck into it. It wasn’t a couple of bites – we’d get about three slices before my mother would stop us and make us wait for the rest of dinner!”

Challah, he says, is like Jewish brioche: “It's oil-based instead of butter-based, so it's different to French brioche, and it gives it this beautiful richness. It's a touch sweet but not crazy sweet. And it's really, really soft.”

The braided loaves are made to be pulled apart and eaten with relish – but leftovers are good.

“The idea is to try only eat half of it. Because the next day, it is the core ingredient for a classic New York French toast. It makes the best French toast,” Shafran says.

At Brooklyn Boy Bagels, it’s a two-day process to make the soft, chewy braided loaves and since Friday is the day when demand peaks, Wednesday is when the biggest batches of dough are made.

Each loaf is made with two long, thick strands of yeast-risen dough, tightly twisted together.

“We do a two-braid loaf, which sounds simple, but it's actually harder than a three. A three-braid is the easiest, the one you see most often [with] people doing it at home. The two-braid is ironically more complicated to do,” says Shafran, who still loves a chance to get hands-on with the braiding occasionally.  “Then we’ll get fancier every now and again and try a six-braid or seven-braid, just to have some fun, and especially if someone orders a ceremonial challah, which is usually for a bar mitzvah or a wedding. That's triple the size, and you can do it in two layers, so you are basically making a big braid and putting a smaller braid on top.”

And then there’s the round challah: “Those are typically for the Jewish New Year, for Rosh Hashanah … It’s meant for a sweet New Year – you’re supposed to have sweeter things, so we use a sweeter dough and we typically put a streusel on top, which is like a sweet crumble.”

BBB’s challah is sold to restaurants and cafes, at market stalls and at the ‘Drive-Thru’ that opened in April at the Marrickville bakery, after coronavirus restrictions saw many of its usual outlets closed. (They can also be added to the ‘Bagel Survival Kits’ the bakery has been delivering around Sydney since restrictions started.)

Selling bread, bagels, tubs of cream cheese schmear, challah, some mighty fine chocolate chip cookies (that the author might confess to eating for breakfast!) and Little Marionette ‘kawfee’, the stall attracts a line of fans who arrive not only by car, but on foot and bike too.

“I’m loving the community here,” says Shafran. “It’s a very cool, creative crowd… and people are very friendly. And the other thing we’d never realised is that it is such a big corridor for people [cycling] to get to the Cooks River, so now it seems like now we're like a prime stop, before or after people cycle. I’m a keen cyclist, so I love having a cycling community that’s coming to us.”

Along with the plans to create a permanent outlet at the bakery, Shafran’s got plenty of other ideas buzzing around in his head. He and his bakers are already working on a new version of the chocolate babka the company has sold in the past, and he’d love to perfect a bialy to add to their wares.

“I've always wanted to make a good bialy, we've made them a couple of times, but I've never been satisfied with the results,” he says. Shaped like a round disk with a deep dimple in the middle, bialys are a Polish Jewish bread that’s popular in New York, but yet to spread across Australia the way bagels have.

But no matter what else he comes up with - “I’m easily bored, which is good for creativity!” – challah will always be one of his favourites. It’s the soft, twisted, oh-so-easy to eat bread of memories.  

Jewish breads
Baba's challah

Challah is plaited Jewish Sabbath bread, and this is Baba Schwartz’s fail-safe recipe. A formidable baker, Baba has baked challah and a Sabbath yeast cake every Friday, wherever's she lived – Hungary, Israel or Australia. 

Jewish Yemeni bread (kubaneh) with zhug

The long slow baking causes the butter between the layers of dough to caramelise, giving the bread an even deep golden colour and distinct, but mellow, flavour right to the core.

Bialy

These deliciously chewy flat round rolls topped with salted onion and poppy seeds are completely addictive. 

Malawach

It was so special for me to spend the morning with Nava, in her Bondi Beach kitchen, learning the disappearing art of making malawach from scratch. Back in our kitchen the next Monday, we were beside ourselves when our dough stretched to translucent. We rolled and folded it over with buttered hands – as she did – and then burnt our tongues eating the hot, flaky bread straight from the frying pan. ~ Lisa, MMCC 

Monkey bread

This is a cinnamony, sweet pull-apart bread that we make to use up extra challah dough. Prepare to be swarmed by children and neighbours.

Polish onion-filled ‘bagels’ (bialy)

Created in the Polish city of Bialystock (hence the name), this small, chewy round roll is often compared to a bagel. Rather than a hole in the centre, an indent is made and filled with cooked onions and poppyseeds, and the dough is baked rather than boiled.

Challah

According to the Torah, when ancient Israelites travelled for 40 years in the desert, they were fed manna, or ‘bread from heaven’, which rained down each day. On Shabbat (Saturday) no manna came, and so a double portion was granted on the Friday instead. Hence, meals during Shabbat begin with a blessing over two loaves of challah.

Challah French toast

This is the perfect way to use up leftover challah!