In the late nineteenth century, the city of Czernowitz, known as the Vienna of Eastern Europe, was famous throughout Austria-Hungary for its tolerance, civic beauty, culture, and learning. Frequently renationalized over the last millennium, Czernowitz has passed through Romanian, Ottoman, and Austrian control and is now a Ukrainian city called Chernivtsi. At its cultural peak at the turn of the twentieth century, it was populated and governed by Jews from Poland, Russia, Austria, and Romania — it even hosted the first-ever Yiddish-language conference in 1908. Of course, World War II destroyed this idyll, and most of the city's Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
This recipe for a classic European challah (pronounced "chern-o-vitzer") comes from the late Lotte Langmann. It is not terribly sweet or eggy, but it is generously enriched with oil. The Austrians traditionally use a four-stranded braid, but this dough holds its shape so beautifully during baking that it is a great choice for showing off any fancy shape. This has become one of my favorite challah recipes.
Mixing the yeast slurry
In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and 3/4 cup (100 grams/3 ounces) of the flour, then whisk in the warm water until smooth. Let the yeast slurry stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.
Mixing the dough
Whisk the 2 eggs, oil, salt, and sugar into the puffed yeast slurry until the eggs are well incorporated and the salt and sugar have dissolved. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in the remaining 3 cups (400 grams/14.7 ounces) flour all at once. When the mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto your work surface and knead it until smooth and soft, no more than 10 minutes. (Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now, to clean it and warm it if you would like to use it for fermenting the dough.) Or, if you like, the dough can be very quickly kneaded in a food processor: Mix the ingredients together in a bowl as directed, cut the rough dough in half, and process one half at a time, then knead the halves together. If the dough is too firm to easily knead, add a tablespoon or two of water to it; if it seems too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour.
The dough should feel smooth and firm and knead easily without sticking to the work surface.
Fermenting the dough
Place the dough in the warm cleaned bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. (Or, the dough can be refrigerated right after kneading, then removed from the refrigerator to finish fermenting up to 24 hours later.) Let the dough ferment until it has at least doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, depending on the temperature in your kitchen. (If it has been refrigerated, the dough will take an extra 30 to 60 minutes to ferment.)
Shaping and proofing the dough
Line one or two large baking sheets, depending on how many breads you are making, with parchment paper or oil them. Divide the dough into two 1-pound (450-gram) portions for loaves, one 1 1/2-pound (680-gram) portion for a large loaf and three smaller pieces for rolls (the easiest way to do this is to divide the dough into quarters and use three of them for the bread and the other for the rolls), or sixteen 2-ounce (60-gram) portions for rolls. To make a New Year's spiral*, roll each portion into a long, even strand, preferably sheeting it out first.
For each portion:
For a flat spiral, make a very loose spiral of dough on the prepared sheet, starting at the center and winding the dough around, leaving space between the loops, and tuck the end of the strand under.
For a high-rising spiral, wind the dough tightly around on the prepared sheet, without leaving any space between the loops, and be sure that the last loop is bound with a bit of tension. This will force the dough to rise in the center as it is proofing and especially during the oven rise.
If you would like to make the bird's head*, before making a long strand, pull off and shape a small round from the dough. Set the round on the spiral, using a little water to help it stick. When the dough is fully proofed, pinch out a beak shape and use your finger to push in dimples for eyes, or use raisins or currants for the eyes.
Cover the loaves well with plastic wrap. (At this point, the loaves can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.) Let proof until tripled in size, about 1 1/2 hours (or up to 2 1/2 hours if the loaves were refrigerated).
Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower third positions if using two baking sheets, or arrange one rack in the upper third position if using one baking sheet, and remove any racks above them. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C/gas mark 4). If you like, preheat one or two baking sheets to double with the baking sheet(s) the loaves are resting on. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt for glazing the bread.
Baking the loaves
When the loaves have tripled and do not push back when gently pressed with your finger but remain indented, brush them with the egg glaze. If desired, sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds. Bake rolls for 15 to 20 minutes, the 1-pound (450-gram) loaves for 25 to 35 minutes, or the 1 1/2-pound (680-gram) loaf for 35 to 45 minutes, until very well browned. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the loaves from front to back so that they brown evenly; if the large loaf is browning too quickly, tent it with foil. When the loaves are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool on a rack.
*According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the New Year's spiral is a shape with a Ukrainian origin, originally a bird shape with the center of the spiral culminating in a bird's head: "The bird's head symbolizes the phrase in Isaiah 31:5 'As birds hovering, so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem'" — which helps to explain why this spiral shape would be called a faigele, "little bird" in Yiddish.
CZERNOWITZER CHALLAH WITH RAISINS
Challah with raisins is very popular, especially among Ashkenazi Jews during the High Holy Days, when food is supposed to be extra-sweet. You can use any kind of raisins desired, or even a mix. If you love raisins and want a generous amount, use the larger quantity specified — but in this case it's especially important to rinse and dry the raisins as described, or the sugar in them will overwhelm the yeast and slow the fermentation.
For Czernowitzer challah with raisins
Mix the yeast slurry as directed and allow to ferment. While the slurry is fermenting, pick through 2/3 to 1 1/3 cups (100 to 200 grams/3.5 to 7 ounces) dark or golden raisins, or a combination. Check for any spoiled ones, then rinse the rest in a strainer or colander under hot tap water, to plump them up and wash away any excess sugar, which would interfere with the yeast's fermentation. If they are hard, let them drain in the strainer so they can absorb the excess water while you complete the dough; if they are already soft, pat them dry in a paper towel and set them aside.
Mix the dough as directed. When it is well kneaded, knead in the raisins just until they are equally distributed. Then proceed as directed.
CZERNOWITZER CHALLAH WITH SAFFRON
Saffron turns up in some Ashkenazi challahs, infusing them with its beautiful color and fragrance. This variation is especially smashing when golden raisins are added to the dough, as described in the raisin variation. Instead of the poppy seeds or sesame seeds, sprinkle the bread with sliced almonds, if desired.
For Czernowitzer challah with saffron
To prepare the saffron and slurry, whisk together the yeast and 3/4 cup (100 grams/3.6 ounces) of the flour in a large bowl as directed. In a small sauté pan, lightly toast 2 generous pinches of saffron filaments over low heat until they curl and turn slightly darker. Slide the saffron into a mortar and pestle and grind it to a powder. Or, if you don't have a mortar and pestle, just use your fingers to crumble as fine a powder as you can manage into a small bowl. Add half the water to the saffron and mix it well with the pestle or your fingers to dissolve all the powder. Pour it into the flour and yeast. Mix the remaining water into the mortar and pestle, swish the pestle or your fingers around, and pour this into the flour mixture. Whisk the mixture together until smooth. Then let the slurry ferment and proceed as directed.
Makes two 1-pound (450-gram) challahs, one 1 1/2-pound (680-gram)