You gotta have challah. For observant Jews, this bread is the descendant of the loaves given to the priests in ancient times. The modern Sabbath dinner table represents the altar of the Temple, with the fine, white flour loaves standing in for the baked and roasted offerings. Eastern European Jews developed a particularly rich challah made from white flour, eggs, water, oil, honey, salt and yeast. For New York City bakeries, even those with no particular connection to Jewish tradition, challah is a guaranteed seller every week. Consequently, the city is stuffed with mediocre loaves. Here we separate the wheat from the chaff and try to identify the city's quality challah.
Challah should generally be soft, rich, and slightly sweet, with bit of a butter-y (even though no butter is included) and egg-y aroma. Most of the year, challahs are braided, but at the (upcoming) Rosh Hashanah holiday meal they're turban-shaped. For much of the city, Fairway makes the go-to challah, baked in their Harlem ovens. The current Fairway round challahs ($3.69) are soft and rich, but they're also overly sweet, with a slightly acrid aftertaste. A better bet for big commercial challahs is the Zomick's brand, available at many area gourmet stores. Its appropriately rich egg challah has a cleaner taste and lasts for days, perhaps due to high oil content.
In some Eastern European communities, egg challahs are considered too rich and sweet. They prefer the "water challah," made with no eggs, less oil, and only a touch of sugar. On Brooklyn's Coney Island Avenue, the owner of the Porges Canadian Style Bakery makes his loaves the way his father did in Montreal. He says, "Think of water challah like a loaf of Italian bread." His small water challah loaf ($2.75) is slightly charred on top, with a crisp crust and very pleasant, chewy interior. They also like water challah on Lee Avenue, the main stem of Williamsburg Satmar shopping strip. At Sander's Bakery, the loaf ($3) is shaped like a lumpy flat iron, with sesame seeds sprinkled on top to symbolize manna. It's finer and sweeter than the Porges loaf—more like challah than Italian bread.
For a quality egg challah, three are three I enjoyed. The loaf ($5.50) from Oneg's Heimishe Bakery on Lee Avenue was the least egg-y of the bunch with a very pleasant texture and aroma. The richest of all the loaves was the Hot Bread Kitchen challah: dense, buttery, with a hint of sweetness. It's delicious, but you don't want to eat too much when matzo balls, gefilte fish, brisket, etc., are vying for space in your stomach. For a slightly lighter egg challah that still rings all the bells, I chose the Chiffon's loaf ($3.50), with a great balance of flavor and texture.
Of course, the Ashkenazim are not the only Jewish group making challah in the city. Traditionally, Sephardic Jews favor eggless challahs similar to thick pita breads. But in the United States, they've been seduced by the richness of Eastern European challahs, which now dominate their holiday tables. Luckily, Hot Bread Kitchen has developed a Sephardic challah ($6) bridging both the European and Middle Eastern traditions. It's turban-shaped and made without eggs but with whole wheat flour, olive oil, and New York State honey. Into the dough the bakers mix caraway seeds and ground cumin. This challah is spicy, rich, and utterly delicious. In fact, the only drawback to the loaf is that it's not available year round.
What's your favorite challah in New York?
Porges Canadian Style Bakery
1441 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn N.Y. 11230 (map) 718-252-3025
159 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn N.Y. 11211 (map) 718-387-7411
Oneg's Heimishe Bakery
188 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn N.Y. 11211 (map) 718-797-0971
Chiffon Kosher Cake Center
430 Avenue P, Brooklyn NY 11223 (map) 718-998-7530