I hadn’t looked at my grandmother’s challah recipe since her death in 1975 at age 91, which she had dictated in Yiddish to my mother during her final hospitalization in intensive care. But with Rosh Hashanah approaching, I longed for my grandmother’s turban shaped loaf, the centerpiece of our holiday table.
I grew up downstairs from my grandparents in our two-family home in Belle Harbor, New York. My brother and I never needed coaxing to run up the stairs and light Sabbath candles with them each Friday night. From the time we arrived home from school, the aroma of baking challahs sent intoxicating fingers through every room in our house. And on Rosh Hashanah, the traditional braided loaf gave way to a majestic spiral, signifying the circle of life. Only on this holiday would Mama Hinda fold in raisins for extra sweetness. We’d tear off chunks to dip in honey and wish each other a sweet new year.
Now I examine her recipe with a critical eye. Uh-oh. “Add a little sugar. Mix with warm water.” Measurements, where given at all, are in glasses, not cups. But which glass?
I call Faye Levy, author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Jewish Cooking for Dummies” and fellow OU Cooking columnist. She helps with the measurements, but cautions: “Is your grandmother’s challah gaining the rosy glow of childhood memories, impossible to duplicate? Recalling the warm family atmosphere in which your loving grandmother served you challah may have something to do with how good it tasted.”
Could Faye be right? I’ve never had a good memory for people – names or faces – but food? Ask me what I ate at Marvin’s Bar Mitzvah in 1959 and I can tell you. (Also how much I weighed, but that’s another story altogether.)
So I bake. Challahs 1 and 2 are disasters. I’m thinking perhaps asking for a recipe when one is on her deathbed may not be the most opportune moment to do so.
Eight batches later I’m getting decent challahs, even good challahs, but still not Mama Hinda’s challah. (Somewhere around batch No. 6 I get the irresistible urge to defrost and cook ten pounds of chicken to make room in the freezer for more challah.)
“Oh, Judy, why don’t you just go to the local bakery and buy a challah,” suggests my mother. No one can ever accuse my mother of being overly sentimental.
But I’m on a mission. I consult the baker at my local bakery. First I buy his challah. I tear into it. Omigosh – Mama Hinda’s challah! I kick myself for not consulting him eight batches sooner. (Yet another reason to listen to my mother.)
“My challah is too crusty,” I whine. He looks at my recipe: “Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in slow oven. Then raise heat,” instructed Mama Hinda. Hyde disagrees. “If the temperature is too cold, it takes longer to bake the inside, so it’s drying on the outside. Most home ovens are about 25 degrees off, so bake it at 375 for 20 to 25 minutes, never more than 30.”
He generously gives me his challah recipe, but it’s by weight, not cups. When I do the math, with a silent thanks to Mr. Falkenheim, my high school algebra teacher – I knew that stuff would come in handy one day – I’m amazed to discover that Hyde’s recipe is very similar to the one I have been working with. So what am I doing wrong? I call him back.
“It’s really hard to make bread at home kneading by hand,” he tells me. “Use your mixer, with the paddle, if your machine can take it, or use the hook.”
But Mama Hinda kneaded by hand. And trust me, she had no personal trainer or ever saw the inside of a gym. But those were the arms that in 1907 carried a nine-month-old baby on a ship across the Atlantic. Those arms held, dressed, fed, sewed for, and cleaned up after seven children, during the Depression, with no conveniences.
I decide no bicep curls will ever give me her strength, and I make the pivotal decision to go for the finished product. The heck with trying to replicate her method. Guiltily eying my KitchenAid I tell myself, hey, I’m not driving around in Papa Harry’s ’51 Pontiac, and I haven’t worn a Merry Widow since the ’60’s. This is the 21st century. I’m sure my grandparents, who had witnessed the horse and buggy give way to Sputnik, would approve.
Miraculously, after a few more adjustments, there it is, lucky No. 13, Mama Hinda’s challah, just as I remember it. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. You just may have to take a different road to get there.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.