A special twist to making challah
By Lou Fancher
There's nothing quite like the sight and sound of 200 women (and a handful of men) making bread together on a Thursday night at the Lafayette Veteran s Hall.
Except there is. For nine months, Sara Briman, chef at Hotel Encanto Acapulco in Mexico City and winner of the American Academy of Hospitality Science s Five-Star Diamond International Challah award, has been touring worldwide, teaching the art of making authentic challah (pronounced hah-luh), a glossy, braided, often poppy-seed topped traditional Jewish bread.
When I met Sara, I thought, "You have to come to Lafayette, " said Chaya Berkowitz from host organization Chabad of Contra Costa. With a vast Jewish population in the East Bay and a voracious community of DIY foodies eager to learn Briman s secret techniques, Berkowitz knew the "Mega Challah Bake she organized for Jan. 15 would be a hit.
Challah originates with a mitzvah, a biblical commandment dating back centuries that directed Jewish families to give a portion of bread dough before it was baked to Temple priests. Prepared two loaves at a time to preserve the Shabbat (the Sabbath, when tradition dictates a day of rest) a blessing is said before the separated portion is removed. In today s practice, God s portion is often burned to ensure it isn t used for another purpose.
'The piece broken off is discarded respectfully,' Briman said. "It reminds me that there are blessings in everything I do that come from God and are not owned by man.'
Twenty-seven years ago, Briman was already a personal chef and had clients requesting Challah for the holidays. She asked everyone she knew for recipes, but most bakers guarded their families' formulas like treasures.
"In the end, a grandmother of an aunt of a friend gave me part of a recipe,--Briman said, laughing and admitting the resulting bread "was never as good as my mother s Challah.--
Determined to master it, Briman began baking Challah monthly and finally baking a good one, she turned hardcore: "This year, I baked 380 Challahs for the holidays," she said.
Receiving the coveted Diamond award in her kitchen, after the organization s president told her he'd journeyed the world over -- including to Israel -- in search of a five-star Challah, Briman said it became her mission to travel to Jewish communities and share her techniques.
"It gives me strength and energy, making Challah with so many women. I can't sleep because I get so much excitement out of it. Of course, this wouldn't be possible for me to spend all of this time in the kitchen, like a chef must do without my husband and my son. They are my secret ingredient; they are why I got this award."
Eve Gordon-Ramek was raised into an Orthodox home and now lives in Orinda. Her father helped form the Hebrew High School in San Francisco and she recalled her parent s strict adherence to Jewish law.
"Every meal, blessings were said, which is rare in California where (the practice of faith) is very loose," she said. "In my mother's house, she would make cinnamon rolls out of leftover dough, so I've seen Challah making before, but never on a scale like this.--
At circular tables throughout the hall, there was abundant free-flowing advice to go along with the five-grain flour, yeast, eggs, oil and soft brushes for glazing.
"Slower, slower," one woman coached her daughter as she kneaded the dough.
Overlapping and cheerfully not seeming to care, people at another table simultaneously erupted into "You can add raisins," "That water's not right," "Who took my brush?-- and "I'll teach you how to say the blessing correctly.--
Orah Schussler of Walnut Creek came to the United States 25 years ago and makes Challah every month, she said.
"I take a whole five-pound bag of flour and make eight loaves. I freeze them and get out two at a time because when the Jewish people left Egypt, God gave them double manna (food from God) so they could rest on Saturday."
Schussler s daughter Arielle, a graduate student at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, said she learned to make Challah by watching her mother.
"We never eat it alone," she said. "Challah is not a pastry of lonely people. It s a sharing food.--
Another big baker is Ofer Zur of Moraga, a self-taught Challah man who steps outside of his computer engineering box to make enormous loaves weighing up to seven pounds.
"Every year, it gets better and better,-- he said, showing off pictures on his phone of what, indeed, looked like a mega Challah bake.