The traditional Jewish loaf has plenty of love woven in
Why do I love challah? Let me count the ways. The traditional Jewish egg bread makes great sandwiches. Challah can be pulled apart or sliced thicker than Texas toast. It goes well with a heap of roast beef or a simple schmear of butter. It comes braided in a loaf or coiled into a round, with sesame or poppy seeds, filled with raisins or simply, triumphantly, plain. Challah bread is at its best it’s fresh and warm: a little spongy, a bit crusty, infused with a tangy hint of honey. I’m partial to the challah loaves from Alon’s Bakery in Atlanta or Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Or I make it myself in a bread machine.
But perhaps the reason I love it so much is it tastes like a big hug.
It’s “haimish,” to use a Yiddish term—familial, accepting, that feeling of welcome you receive when eating with loved ones, enveloping you like a warm room on a chilly evening.
When I was growing up in 1970s New Orleans, challah was hard to get. Indeed, in a city with just a few thousand Jewish families, ANY Jewish food was hard to get. New Orleans, then and now, may be an eater’s heaven—it was never any problem finding any number of unusual foods or salt-of-the-earth restaurants—but try getting a bagel and lox or a nice bowl of matzo ball soup. For members of the tribe, New Orleans could be more like an eater’s limbo.
(My mother once tried to convince my New York-based uncle to pack a Hebrew National salami in his suitcase for a visit. My uncle, concerned about his suits smelling like cold cuts, wisely refused.)
So when it came to challah, there were few places to turn. Just one local bakery, Bill Long’s (of blessed memory) routinely made the bread. Long’s bakery was in Uptown New Orleans, across the Mississippi River and many miles from my Westbank home, so having it was a special occasion.
Customarily, challah is eaten weekly on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. A traditional Jewish household will have two braided loaves. They are, like so many Jewish traditions, symbolic of memory, history and grace, with the richer bread representing the sweetness of God’s gift of manna, as well as Shabbat itself.
But my family didn’t keep Shabbat, so essentially the special occasion was once a year: the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and after the Yom Kippur fast (the day of atonement). We’d sit down for dinner, a pair of round loaves—for the cycle of life—of challah at the center of the table. Then we’d pull off pieces, dip them in honey, and gorge on them amid the turkey, beans, and kugel.
There was rarely anything left the next morning. That was symbolic of a meal well done.
So if I wanted bread with breakfast, my choice was generally Bunny Bread, a local white sandwich brand. (Occasionally there were Lender’s Bagels in the freezer.) That was okay. I didn’t know better.
It wasn’t until years later I realized that challah wasn’t just for special occasions.
I was in a diner and saw French toast on the menu. This wasn’t the French toast of my childhood, weak slices of fried sandwich bread that had been drowned in an egg-and-milk mixture. This was challah French toast: hearty, thick cuts of golden fried dough. To some, the prospect of an egg bread dipped in an egg batter may seem like gilding the lily (or, to borrow a Britishism, over-egging the pudding). To me, it was like what it represented: manna from heaven. Just add syrup.
Now, when I’m in a restaurant for breakfast, I’ll check the menu for challah French toast. If it’s listed, I know I’m in welcoming hands—even if it’s not very kosher of me to have it with bacon.
Better than that, as I’ve gotten older, I seldom visit a breakfast restaurant alone. Often I go with my wife; other times a group of friends. Despite the sleep-flecked eyes and rumpled yawns, there’s something cozy about such a breakfast.
Incidentally, the word “challah” has its roots in the most sacred work of Judaism: the Torah. “When you enter the land to which I am taking you, and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord,” God tells Moses in Numbers 15. In Hebrew, the word for this tribute is “challah.”
“The dough from which challah is taken is said to be filled with blessings,” writes Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Writing about challah makes me want to bake a loaf. Here’s the challah recipe I use; it should be ready in a few hours.
I’ll save you a piece for breakfast.