Food, Food Artisans

My Rocky Road to Challah Perfection

Maddie LaKind shares her Challah tale

September is finally here, which means Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—is just around the corner. For as long as I can remember, Rosh has been my favorite Jewish holiday. The fall always feels like the best time to not only reflect on the year that has passed but also look forward and set goals for the future. But if I’m being honest, what excites me more than anything about this holiday is the wonderful food, which runs the gamut from brisket, to roast chicken, kugel, matzo ball soup, apples and honey, chopped liver, beautiful desserts, and my all time favorite, round raisin challah bread. Since Rosh is the holiday for equal parts reflection and eating, I thought I’d take a moment to ask some questions about challah bread, specifically about my various attempts at baking it at home. And who better to ask than the source itself?

Dear Challah,

Why must you torment me so when all I’ve ever shown you is love and adoration? Remember the early days of preschool at Beth Emet synagogue. Every Friday morning we would prepare loaves of your beautiful self to take home for our respective Shabbat dinners. Or how about middle school, when my family discovered a new bakery in town that made the best loaves of Challah we’d ever tasted. You became the star of our household for years to come. Or college when I began work at Zingerman’s Deli and would stare longingly at all of the beautiful varieties of you in the bread box—chocolate chunk, braided, square, seeded, plain. Clearly we have a connection.

So why, Challah, given all of this respect, did you present so many issues when I tried to bake you at home? I’m a patient person with a good sense of intuition in the kitchen, but you were the one project I couldn’t seem to master.

The trouble really began about two years ago, when I prepared a Shabbat dinner for my house of eight college roommates. After four laborious hours dissolving yeast, kneading dough, proofing once, twice, thrice times, braiding, it finally came time for you to bake. The only catch was our busted oven, which meant you had to be taken over to the neighbor’s kitchen. Alas, I lost track of time, arriving too late to retrieve you. Your entire top half a was a matted-black color rather than the intended shiny golden brown. So much time and so much hope shattered in the span of five minutes.

Despite the challenges of my first effort, I didn’t give up. I became determined to attempt you once again, this time during Rosh Hashanah the following September. Using the exact same recipe as before, I methodically went through each step, making sure each of your ingredients was precisely measured and each phase of your growth intensely monitored. But, you weren’t on my side this go-around either. Instead of puffing up into a large woven braid, you rose only a mere ¼ in. or so while baking, and took on the texture of a chewy pretzel rather than a light, fluffy egg bread. Two strikes and my motivation was waning.

But even that couldn’t hold me back from taking you on once again for yet another Shabbat dinner with family. Discouraged by the failed attempts of the first recipe, I tried another this time, one that places your dough form in the refrigerator over night before baking. Intrigued by the new technique, I thought this time would bring only success. Wrong. First mistake in the process: I forgot to add sugar into your dough after kneading in all of the flour. Oops. I figured it couldn’t hurt too much to just add it back into the mixture after the fact. Wrong again. Then the real fun began. For some reason when I placed you in the refrigerator, you decided to flatten out into a pancake and, during baking, didn’t rise an inch. Texturally you were off as well, taking on a bland almost plastic-like consistency hardly reminiscent of true challah at all.

Challah, the phrase fed up doesn’t even begin to cover how you made feel all these times. I was angry, hurt, disappointed, and hungry for a taste of the real deal. That irresistible, buttery, sweet, deep flavor that held so much nostalgia. I decided some time away from you could help turn things around and give me a new perspective on the situation. A year later, I gave the process another go with a brand-spanking-new recipe, and much to my surprise, you turned out absolutely perfect.

After recreating this specific recipe nearly three times over, I finally feel at peace with you. I just wanted to share how you made me feel, and to ask why you had to cause me such distress for so long? Maybe you were trying to teach me something. Maybe you were trying to show me that good things take time. Or maybe you were just trying to tell me that mistakes are important, especially in the kitchen. I guess I’ll never know. Whatever your reasons, I forgive you and thank you for the memories, both good and bad. I look forward to baking you and sharing you with loved ones for years to come.

Much love and bread wishes,


Challah Column Pic

Erev Rosh Hashanah is September 24. 
Let Zingerman’s do the cooking this year! Check out the Deli’s Rosh Hashanah Menu for a wonderful selection of tasty treats from Zingerman’s Bakehouse, as well as a savory assortment from Zingerman’s DeliL’Shanah tovah!