Challah might be the most delicious bread you’ll ever eat.
Back when I was only a celiac, baking was already a frustrating and highly experimental experience. I tried out fancy (and lengthy) recipes but would usually end up relying on Betty Crocker boxed versions of cookies and cake. It was easier in more ways than one.
About six years ago, I gave up the sorts of pastries that simply don’t translate well to the variabilities of gluten free chemistry. Croissants, baklava, real doughnuts (not round cake-shaped pretenders), and rugelach were no longer a possibility. At one point, I became desperate enough to try a recipe for gluten free stuffed cannoli. It worked out better than expected but was difficult enough to dissuade me from trying again. Long story short, to achieve close-to-real results, one must follow a path of blood, sweat, and gluten-free tears.
Now add vegan to the mix of recipe requirements and everything goes from difficult to impossible.
I enjoyed the delicacy that is challah when I was a child visiting my grandparents, but it wasn’t something I thought about or included on that list of ‘not gonna happens.’ Until I went to Israel …
On that recent trip, I was taunted daily by beautiful, shiny loaves of this Jewish celebratory specialty. So when I received a text from my mom with a link to a vegan and gluten free challah bread recipe, I knew I had to try it.
A Challah Bread Experiment
When you google “gluten free vegan challah bread,” a surprising amount of links come up. I went with the one my mom sent me and examined the relatively complicated ingredients list with interest. You can find it here.
Two days later, a challah bread mold arrived from Amazon Prime and it was time to play the mad scientist for a few hours.
I gathered all the ingredients on the countertop and started following directions.
Replacing the aspects of non-gluten free/vegan baked goods that rise is the hardest part of adapting normal to allergen-free. That’s why this recipe called for egg replacer, a flax egg, xanthan gum, active dry yeast, and apple cider vinegar. Attacking the failings of egg-less recipes from all sides!
I set to mixing up the dry ingredients. I began with step 2 instead of step 1 because I didn’t want the rising agents to sit around coagulating for too long while I measured and blended flours together.
So far so good. It was my first time trying the egg replacer (smells like eggs + made of algae = weird) and vegan mayonnaise. The best part of the baking process was watching the active dry yeast and sugar mixture froth up.
Once the wet ingredients were combined with the dry, I covered it, let the dough rise, and set to waiting. There was plenty of waiting.
Finally it was semi-done. I mixed the dough with my hands and attempted to move it with my sticky, clumpy fingers into the challah mold. Just like the recipe indicated, I had more dough leftover than would fit in the mold, so I sectioned off the rest into a loaf-shaped pan.
I let it rise again (more waiting) and put that sucker in the oven.
It smelled great during its first round of baking. Oh yes, the recipe does get more complicated. I had to bake the loaves for a little while, remove them, flip them out of the mold and pan, brush them with oil and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, and return them to the oven.
The final result looked pretty close to real challah, considering the texture was completely different and I didn’t hand-braid it. The hint of turmeric gave it a deep yellow tinge on the inside, which is basically its way of shouting “look at me, I’m pretending to be the real thing!”
If I were going to try this again, I think I’d play around with a different recipe. But this one is still worthy of praise, considering it produced something edible that people who are not vegan/gluten free consumed without cringing.
According to one of my taste testers, this version is “eggy, sweet, almost cake-like” and tastes similar to real challah except it’s denser. I call that a success.
Israel Challah Bread Image by Jenna Brady, 2016