Cookbook author Joan Nathan’s Jan. 8 visit included not only a lecture but also a hands-on challah bread baking workshop. She spoke to an audience widely comprised of amateur chefs, interested in the opportunity to braid and bake the traditional Jewish pastry, as well as gain some insight from Nathan, a noted food critic and author. Nathan has published the book Jewish Cooking in America and has worked in Israel gaining personal insight on Jewish and Arab food traditions.
The challah demonstration was held in the JRC last Tuesday at 1 p.m. attended by about 30 students and several faculty and staff members, including Rabbi Sissy Korin and Matthew Kraus, head of the Bronfman Committee, as well as Caroline Reeves, professor of History and instructor of a Winter Study course called “The Transnational Life of Food.” Nathan began the session discussing what exactly challah bread is and why it is a worthwhile food to talk about and make.
Nathan first explained that challah bread is in fact not all that traditional. Historically, Jews in the Middle East ate matzoh, which is unleavened, causing it to be very flat. It turns out challah bread is native to European and American Jews, but is consumed specifically on holidays. Challah bread was originally made only for the Sabbath because, composed of white flour, it was more refined than the pumpernickel bread that Jewish peasants ate daily in Europe.
For the workshop Nathan had arranged for bread dough to be prepared in advance to save time, as making the dough and allowing it to rise takes several hours. Bowls of prepared and risen dough were provided for several groups of approximately 4-6 students each. The dough was divided into two parts, one to make a challah and one to make an onion poppy roll, typically a breakfast treat. Students divided the challah dough into six equal parts and rolled out into long, thin ropes, in a way reminiscent of how children play with clay.
Nathan demonstrated how to braid the challah using the six ropes. She also instructed the groups on how to prepare onion poppy rolls. Each group learned how to knead the dough out and create a roll filled with onion slices and poppy seeds. The rolls were then salted and sliced, creating small rolls similar to sweet buns or streudel, but straight out of the Jewish-American cooking tradition.
Nathan’s narration of this activity helped explain the process and the history behind the foods and baking them made the history interesting and applicable.