Why Make A Key Shaped Challah?
It's a relatively obscure tradition, but in some Ashkenazi communities, there's a custom to bake key-shaped challah to enjoy on the Shabbat after Passover. Known as a Shlissel Challah, there are lots of symbolic meanings ascribed to the uniquely shaped bread. Some consider it a ritual "charm" or remedy of sorts—meant to help ensure a good livelihood in the year to come.
The practice is not without controversy. Some rabbinic authorities scoff at the concept of segulot, while others take issue with the fact that the Shlissel Challah likely has pagan or Christian origins.
But others consider it a lovely philosophical or spiritual reminder to seek keys to understanding the Torah, or to cultivating a sense of "Yirat Shamaim," (which translates literally as "fear of heaven," though it's generally understood as having a healthy reverence for G-d and the laws of the Torah).
Thanks to the blogosphere and Pinterest, word has spread about this unusual challah, and folks who didn't grow up with the tradition—myself included—have tried their hand at making one. As I was working on mine, I was thinking about a traditional Jewish housewarming gift that I learned from my mother. A loaf of challah was always a part of the gift basket, and I can't think of a better shape to welcome friends to a new home than a key.
Divide the Dough for Your Shlissel Challah
Before you get started, you'll need to make some challah dough. If you don't already have a favorite recipe, give this Vegan Water Challah recipe a try. Because it contains no eggs and has a lower moisture content than many challah doughs, it's not too sticky and makes a supple, easy-to-shape dough. (It's also less prone to puffing a lot as it rises, so your key should retain a nicely defined shape)
Mix and knead the dough, and allow it to rise. After the initial rise, punch the dough down and divide it into 6 equally-sized balls (the final ball will be used for decorating the loaf, so it's fine if it's a bit smaller or larger than the others.)
Tip: If you're making dough from your own large-quantity recipe to do hafrashat challah, consider how much dough you typically use for a large braided loaf; that should be enough to make one Schlissel challah. (This will probably be 1/5 to 1/6 of the dough made with a 5-lb bag of flour).
Braid Dough to Create the Key's Shaft
The prettiest Shlissel Challahs are modeled after decorative tumbler lock keys. If you've got an antique cabinet or chest, you may have one to use as a reference; you can also find images of antique keys online. You can sketch out your own design, or use mine as a guide. I've used a braid for the shaft—the key's backbone—because it's both decorative and sturdy.
Lightly grease a large baking sheet or line it with parchment paper. Take 3 of the dough balls and roll each into a long, thin rope, about 1 inch in diameter and 8 to 10 inches long. Place the ropes side-by-side, and pinch the tops together at one end. Make a 3-strand braid, then pinch the other end of the ropes together. Tuck the ends of the challah under the loaf to help hold them in place. Center the braid vertically on a baking sheet. The braid will form the shaft of the key, so be sure to leave enough room at the top for the head of the key.
Twist Dough to Make the Head of the Key
Next, you'll be making the head of the key—the part one would grasp when inserting it into a lock.
Take 2 balls of dough and roll each into a long, thin rope. Place the ropes side-by-side. Gently lift the ropes and twist them around each other until the twist extends all the way to the ends. Pinch the ends on each side together.
Join the Ends of the Twist to Form a Ring
Take the ends of the dough twist you just made, and join them to form a round or oval ring. Overlap the ends slightly and pinch to seal them together.
Attach the Dough Ring to the Braid
Now your key will really start to take shape: take the ring you just made and put it on the baking sheet, with the pinched-together part of the circle right near the top of the challah braid. Lift the end of the braid slightly and lay it atop the ring. Gently stretch the end of the braid over the ring, and tuck it under, pressing lightly to secure the dough pieces together.
Create Teeth for the Key
You'll use the remaining dough to create details for the key. Take about 1/4 to 1/3 of the remaining dough, and form it into a rectangular shape. Lay the rectangle on end beside the bottom of the braid and press gently, so the sides of the dough adhere. (Don't worry about squeezing them together—you want to retain the shape of each, and they will join as they rise and bake. Repeat with a second, smaller dough rectangle, and attach this to the first.
Add Detail to the Key Challah
Add detail to the key—and provide a surface for decoration— by laying a band of dough around the neck of the key. Place two thin ropes of dough on either side of the wider band to add extra definition to the design. Tuck the ends under the key to secure them.
Get Creative and Decorate the Key Challah
Get creative and use the remaining dough to make tiny embellishments for the shlissel challah. Decorate your key with little curlicues or rosettes, or make a vine-like pattern with tiny ropes of dough. Use your imagination, but stick to designs made of dough; though some have the tradition of baking an actual key into their shlissel challah, the practice is unwise from a food safety perspective, as real keys may contain heavy metals, and have even been known to melt in the oven!
Finishing the Shlissel Challah
Allow the decorated challah to rise, according to recipe instructions. Preheat the oven as directed, brush with an egg wash, and bake. Transfer the challah to a rack to cool. Enjoy!