December 12, 2018

In Pursuit of the Perfect Gluten-Free Challah

“More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” — Ahad Ha’am

Shabbat is a grounding force for our family. Throughout our hectic work and school days, we look forward to “getting on the island” and the moment when everything stops. The stress of the week melts away as we light the candles and reconnect over a beautifully set table, fresh challah and delicious food. When my oldest son went away to school, he told me the one thing he would miss the most from home was my homemade challah.

I have been baking challah every Friday since my kids were little. The delicious aroma of freshly baked challah in the house reminded everyone that Shabbat was coming. My challah was always the centerpiece of my Shabbat table, and any leftovers enabled the sweetness of Shabbat to linger with us until the last piece was gone.

Two years ago, my youngest son, Jack, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease. Celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people and is hereditary.

Because it is prevalent in Caucasians with European ancestry, it affects a high percentage of Ashkenazi Jews. Jack’s only symptom was a noticeable decline in his growth rate. Blood tests followed by an endoscopy confirmed the diagnosis.

Sometime between ages 11 and 12, Jack’s immune system began to attack the lining of his small intestines, mistaking gluten for a virus or bacteria. Unlike those who choose to eliminate gluten for weight loss or other health benefits, even trace amounts of gluten can turn on his antibody response, increasing his risks of nutrient deficiency, bone cancers, neurological disorders and other complications. Eating out could put Jack at risk of exposure and delay his healing and growth.

So we decided to make our home a safe space for him and banished even trace amounts of gluten from the kitchen. It took some adjustment, but the hardest part was finding a replacement for my beloved homemade challah. I tried dozens of recipes and different techniques but nothing came close to the real thing. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other related grains. It is the magical binding ingredient in any baked good that helps it rise and gives it structure.

Braiding dough without gluten is nearly impossible. My early gluten-free challahs looked more like oat cakes made in Bundt pans or silicon molds shaped like challah. Many recipes called for xanthan gum, which helps bind ingredients but it produces a distinct gummy texture and taste notable in most commercial gluten-free breads. I was really frustrated, and we all felt like something significant was missing from our Shabbat table.

Braiding dough without gluten is nearly impossible. My early gluten-free challahs looked more like oat cakes made in Bundt pans.

I didn’t give up, though. I was determined to find a way to make challah that my whole family looked forward to all week. In the spring of 2016, I was fortunate to meet biochemist and chef Steven Rice from Authentic Foods at the Celiac Expo in Pasadena, where he was giving out samples of delicious, freshly made gluten-free pita bread.

We started to chat, and I told him that the one thing my family truly missed since we went gluten-free was my beautiful braided challah on Shabbat. Rice, also Jewish, understood my frustrations. He told me that he figured out how to re-create the protein gluten in a plant fiber, and with his new gum-free bread flour blend, he said that I could braid challah dough!

That week I called Rice and made arrangements to come to the Authentic Foods office in Gardena with my original challah recipe. He did some calculations and converted my old wheat-flour recipe to work with his blend. My first batch was a flop, but after an SOS call to Rice, we got it right.

I’ve perfected the recipe since then and created one using oat flour so it can be used with the ha-Motzi blessing. The challah rolls take a little extra time but have a particularly great texture with a firm crust and soft center. Thanks to Rice, Authentic Foods and a little determination, we all can enjoy Shabbat with truly delicious challah that I can proudly serve my family and guests at the Shabbat table again!

TALIA’S GLUTEN-FREE CHALLAH
Developed with Steven Rice from Authentic Foods

Baking notes:
Use a scale to weigh dry ingredients.
This recipe has been tested using Steve’s Flour Blend by Authentic Foods, which can be found online at authenticfoods.com.
This recipe will produce two, small, braided loaves or 12-14 individual rolls.
For ha-Motzi, mix with gluten-free oat flour noted below (I use Bob’s Red Mill, available at Whole Foods or amazon.com).

Yeast mixture
1/4 cup lukewarm water (105-115°F)
2 1/4 teaspoons or 1 packet (7 grams) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Steve’s Flour Blend

Dry ingredients
542 grams Steve’s Flour Blend (for ha-Motzi, 266 grams Blend/276 grams gluten-free
oat flour)
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 tablespoon potato flour (not potato starch; also available at Authentic Foods)
1 teaspoon psyllium husk powder (optional; available at amazon.com)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Wet ingredients
3 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/3 cup or 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) organic
melted butter, sunflower, olive or coconut oil
2 tablespoons honey (optional)
Tapioca flour for shaping dough
Egg wash
Sesame seeds, poppy seeds or cinnamon
sugar (optional, for garnish)

Preheat oven to 400 ° F.

In a small bowl, combine ingredients for the yeast mixture, stir and let stand for 5-10 minutes until it is foamy and bubbly.

In a large bowl of an electrical mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (not dough hook) or a regular hand mixer, combine the dry ingredients and mix until ingredients are evenly distributed.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and slowly mix in warm water and melted butter/oil. Add the liquid and yeast mixture to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute and then on medium speed for a few minutes until well combined.

Cover bowl and let rise 30-45 minutes.

Lightly dust the work surface with tapioca flour and turn out dough on to it. Shape into a ball and then divide the dough in half. Break each smaller ball into three and roll out gently with a light hand into three strands. (To make challah rolls, divide the dough into 12-14 balls, roll each ball into a strand and then make a knot and place on the baking sheet.)

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Gently place the strands on to the pan and braid. Repeat with the second loaf.

Brush loaves (or rolls) with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds, poppy seeds or cinnamon sugar, if desired.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350° F.

Place sheet in middle rack of oven and bake 30 minutes for rolls, and up to 40-45 minutes for loaves.


Talia Resin has three sons and lives with her husband, Jamie, in Beverlywood. With a background in management consulting, she focuses on community involvement in Jewish education and Israel advocacy.

May is Celiac Disease Awareness month. To learn more about celiac disease, visit celiac.org.