By Jennifer Cohen
[Note: Jen’s delicious challah, fresh from the oven, its smell wafting though the room at the close of Friday night services, has been an AARC tradition for almost 20 years.]
I used to say that I came into this religion through the kitchen. Growing up in Ohio, I knew very, very few Jews. Sure, I read the All of a Kind Family books, but I never imagined that any of that (kosher dishes! dressing up for something called Purim!) was still going on. I read those stories and absorbed that information the same way I did Little House on the Prairie–historical fiction. Then I moved to NY, met Adam, fell in love and a bit through the looking glass. I got a crash course on keeping kosher and the relentless holiday schedule.
Soon I was checking hot dog bun packages to see if they were parve and trying to figure out how to make a dinner without butter. I learned to make latkes; Adam was not impressed with my first attempts. I think he said something like “those look like bird’s nests”. I found a kosher butcher, made peace with the idea of no bacon or shrimp, and got a cheap second set of dishes. It was fairly easy to do this on Long Island. Things were set up there.
When we moved to MI, I had to search and hunt to find some of my, by then, staples. Missing some of the good bakeries, I decided it was time to learn to bake challah. I consulted several cookbooks (this was before you could go on-line!) and gave it a shot, every Friday. There were some success and some dismal failures (a potato challah that slumped off the baking sheet). I persevered and came up with a version of what I bake today. The trick was in the rising time. Earlier recipes had the rising time set at short intervals–1 hour, then punch down, then rest 40 minutes, then bake. At that time, I had two busy little boys and couldn’t sit around and wait for dough to rise. I used to make the dough, take it along with us to the park. After an hour, making sure the boys were engaged in an important excavation in the sandbox, I’d punch it down and pop it into 2 loaf pans. (I had a little work station set up in the back of the mini-van.) Then, 1/2 an hour later, we’d drive home and bake. Warm challah for teatime and a fresh loaf for dinner.
At some point, I realized that the timing on the rise really didn’t matter. In fact, longer was better. I also learned that bread flour produced superior results; you need a good amount of honey for delicious challah; never, ever, ever use margarine (gack!) and duck eggs make the very best challah in the world. Sadly, I don’t have the access to duck eggs that I once had. Still miss that. I’ve invited people into my home for whole afternoons to learn to mix the dough and braid a loaf. I’ve done workshops at the Sukkot Retreat. I’ve got video of little Eli and little Avi shaping their own loaves for Friday night. And a charming picture of a very young Mollie K-S in an apron, leaning against my kitchen counter. Lori Lichtman has taken to challah baking like she was born for it. The Field-Schneyers make it a family activity, pulling Lillie in to manage the braiding.
I think the first time I got into production mode was for Sarah Kurz’s bat mitzvah. Dina called to asked if I could make several loaves, noting that Sarah especially liked raisin. It was a stretch in my teeny, tiny kitchen, but by starting a new batch every hour, I was able to turn out a respectable amount of bread by the big day. And that was the first time I did the “braid in a circle” configuration. I wanted something more special for a bat mitzvah, something prettier than a loaf. It turns out that shaping it that way helps it to bake more evenly, so that has become my signature shape.
Challah takes time, but it is not a trickster in the kitchen. I always tell new bakers that flour, eggs and honey want to be challah every Friday. Freshly baked, even the worst challah is good. That is my secret: I bake our Friday night challah at the JCC. It is warm from the oven when we do the blessing. You are hungry from sitting in services and catching the scent of warm butter. Of course it tastes delicious!