Oct 24

The Great Challah Bake

This Thursday, October 25, is the annual Great Challah Bake, when thousands of Jewish women from around the world unite in their respective communities to bake this special bread.

Note: You don’t have to be Jewish to love challah. If you love baking or trying new recipes, this bread is for you!

Challah is the name of the loaves of braided bread that are served on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals. Each Sabbath and festival—with the exception of Passover—two whole loaves are placed on the table at every meal. These double loaves remind us of the double portion of manna that the Jews received every Friday in the desert so that they would not have to gather this “bread from heaven” on the Sabbath. And indeed, whoever has tasted challah has tasted heaven here on earth.

The loaves come in all sizes and all shapes. The most traditional Sabbath shape is the six braid, using six strands of dough. When the double loaves are placed on the table, they symbolize the 12 showbreads that were placed on the altar each week in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is brought down in the Gemara that the 12 showbreads stayed warm and fresh all week.

Six-braid spelt challah

Most challah contains seven ingredients, paralleling the seven days of the week: eggs, oil, water, yeast, sugar, salt, and flour. Most weekday bread is made without eggs, but the Sabbath challah usually has eggs—the seventh ingredient.

Today, with good kosher bakeries readily available, many Jewish women have given up the practice of baking challah. But there is nothing more heavenly tasting than a good, homemade challah. And challah is surprisingly quick and easy to make, as well as being a great afternoon project with your kids.

The following recipe is one of the best and easiest I’ve discovered. I have made it using different types of flours and they all turn out well: regular wheat, whole wheat, white spelt, spelt pastry, whole spelt, and a mixture of different flours. I use demerara sugar instead of white, and sometimes add honey for extra sweetness. My children are now so “spoiled” by my homemade challah that they complain when I purchase challah from the store.

Note: The amount of flour required in this recipe if you are measuring in pounds was calculated at 7-1/4 cups to the kilo (2.2 lb.), or 3.3 cups to the pound for white flour. Whole-grain flours are heavier and you may need to weigh the flour out. Generally, if you are using 100-percent whole wheat flour, you will need to reduce the total amount of flour somewhat. For spelt flour, reduce the liquid instead.

No matter the flour you use, make sure that you have additional flour on hand, as the actual amount required may also vary according to climatic and other conditions. Mix the dough in a large tub or oversized bowl. There’s enough flour in it to make the blessing when taking challah.


2 kg. plus 4 cups (5.6 lb. or 18-1/2 cups) sifted flour (more, if needed)
3 Tbsp. instant dried yeast
1 cup sugar (demerara or raw cane recommended)
1/8 to 1/4 cup honey for Rosh Hashanah or extra sweetness any time (optional)
2-3 Tbsp. salt, depending on taste
3 eggs at room temperature
1 cup oil, such as canola
5-1/2 to 6 cups warm water (for spelt, use 5 cups)


Add dry ingredients to flour one at a time in the order they are listed, mixing well after each addition. In a separate bowl, measure out water. Add eggs and oil mix well. Pour liquid into dry ingredients and stir well (wooden spoon recommended). When you are unable to stir in the ingredients anymore with a spoon, start kneading the rest of the flour into the dough with your bare hands. You can do the kneading right in the bowl. As dough becomes sticky, dust the top of it with flour and continue kneading until all the flour is mixed in and the dough becomes elastic and springs back after each fold. Knead for about 5 minutes.

Lift the dough and oil the sides of the bowl well. Place dough back in bowl. You should take challah with a blessing at this point. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (I recommend using half a plastic table cloth cover) and let the dough rise away from cold or drafts for at least a few hours until double in bulk. The amount of time it takes the dough to rise will depend on the temperature of the room and the water you used in the dough. Punch down dough and let it double in bulk again.

Cover the kitchen table in clean, heavy plastic (heavy disposable plastic table cloths recommended) to create a work surface. Divide the dough into quarters. Working with one quarter at a time, divide the dough in half, and then divide each half into six equal balls. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball out lengthwise on a lightly floured surface, and then roll jellyroll style to form a strand.

Braid strands to form challahs or twist into rolls, and place them several inches apart on baking sheets lined with baking paper. Brush with egg mixed with a little water so that the tops will be brown and shiny, and let rise for another 10 to 20 minutes. Bake in preheated 350° F (180° C) oven for 20-30 minutes, or until nicely brown on top.

Challahs will rise further while baking. Once they have risen most of the way in the oven and are slightly browned (about 12-15 minutes of baking), you may want to brush them with more egg mixture to give them a proper shine.

Remove challahs from oven and cover with clean, dry cloth while they cool.

Makes 8 large challahs or 48 medium challah rolls. These challahs freeze well for future enjoyment.



Dec 29

Packing a Party Punch

Miss Charing swallowed another mouthful of punch. A gentle glow was spreading through her veins, dispelling the melancholy which had possessed her. It would have been too much to have said that she was restored to happiness, but she no longer despaired. –Georgette Heyer, Cotillion

Who doesn’t remember, as a child, sneaking forbidden sips of punch at a festive family gathering? Oh! the sweetness of it all; the wonderful alcoholic glow—without the youthful agonies of trying to down an undiluted glass of ordinary rum or vodka.

William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation

Revelers with a bowl of punch. Detail from A Midnight Modern Conversation by William Hogarth, 1733

Ever since the fruity alcoholic concoction was first introduced to England from India some 400 years ago, it has been a popular item on the beverage menu at parties and holiday festivities. Possibly the first recorded recipe for punch was in 1599, when Sir Edward Kennel, commander in chief of the British Royal Navy, offered his ships’ companies a punch—so named for the Hindu word panch, which according James Trager’s The Food Chronology means “five,” denoting the five basic ingredients of this wonderful concoction: spirits, sugar, citrus juice, water, and aromatic flavorings.

Trager describes Sir Kennel’s punch recipe as consisting of “80 casks of brandy, 9 of water, 80 pints of lemon juice, 25,000 limes, 1,300 pounds of Lisbon sugar, 5 pounds of nutmegs, 300 biscuits, and a cask of Malaga, ‘all brewed in a marble basin and served to 6,000 guests by ships’ boys (who serve 15-minute shifts to avoid getting drunk from the fumes) sailing the punch in a rosewood boat.’ ” Read the rest of this entry »

Dec 15

Traditional Chanukah treats

As a child growing up in a small Midwestern American city, Chanukah held a special magic for me.

My late father, who must have possessed a largely untapped creative streak, devoted many hours to creating wonderful decorations out of Styrofoam, strings of blue-and-white electric lights, and blue and silver glitter. We were the proud owners of a giant Styrofoam menorah; each night of Chanukah we swiveled on an additional bulb until on the last night all eight lights and the shamash (servant) “candle” were lit. We also owned a six-pointed Styrofoam Star of David with a light on each point, small dreidels (special four-sided Chanukah tops), and various other Chanukah-appropriate cutouts.

Each year we light an antique brass menorah like this one, which was made in Poland and carried to the New World by an immigrant family. Our menorah, much more rubbed and worn than the one pictured here,  is said to have a similar history—although these menorahs were replicated by the Workman’s Circle on New York's Lower East Side early in the 20th Century.

Each year we light an antique brass menorah like this one, which was made in Poland and carried to the New World by an immigrant family. Our menorah, passed down in my family and much more rubbed and worn than the one pictured here, is said to have a similar history—although these menorahs were replicated by the Workman’s Circle on New York’s Lower East Side early in the 20th Century.

A few days before Chanukah, we three daughters would bring the Chanukah decorations up from boxes in the basement and, with much excitement, arrange them artistically around the fireplace. Then, each night, after we lit our respective Chanukah menorahs, we would ceremoniously plug in the electric “Chanukah lights” and open our much-anticipated presents.

This wasn’t the way our forebears celebrated Chanukah for generations before us, and it definitely contained elements of the gentile holiday festivities surrounding us. But, as a tiny minority in our city, our Chanukah decorations kept any longings for a “Chanukah bush” at bay. Surely we had the most beautiful Chanukah house in town!

That Sunday at religious school, Temple Emanuel would hold its annual Chanukah party. The sisterhood ladies turned out in droves to grate potatoes and onions and fry up delicious latkes (potato pancakes), which they always served with sweet, cinnamon-spiced applesauce. Heaven! And, the fact that we always got out of religious studies early for the party made the latkes even tastier. Read the rest of this entry »

Dec 01

Fish and chips: an old-new tradition for Chanukah?

This week, guest blogger Libi Astaire joins me to share another interesting glimpse into Jewish culinary history—just in time for Chanukah. Ms. Astaire is the author of the popular Ezra Melamed mystery series, set in Jewish Regency England, as well as a series of Chassidic tales for the Jewish holidays, and other literary delights. Visit Ms. Astaire’s author page on Amazon.com.

Chanukah lights

The Kindling of the Hanukkah Lights, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Every once in a while I’m contacted by an aspiring author of historical fiction who wants to know how she (or he) can make the historical research faster and easier. Fortunately, the contact is usually made by email or phone; that way they can’t see me silently shake my head in dismay. Yes, we’d all like to be more efficient. But if I were to try to save time, I’d cut back on the time I spend on Facebook and Twitter. The time I spend doing historical research—even when it seems like I’m getting nowhere—usually turns out to be pure gold.

An example: A few weeks before Chanukah, I decided to research how Jews living in Regency England celebrated the holiday. Did they have any special customs or foods? Although my primary goal was to come up with a nice blog post, I figured I could also use the information in my Ezra Melamed Mystery Series, which is about—you guessed it—Jews living in Regency England.

Several fruitless hours later, my research seemed to suggest that either Regency Jews didn’t celebrate Chanukah or that they fasted for the entire eight days. In other words, I couldn’t find a single thing. Even my usual trustworthy source, Lady Judith Montefiore, author of the first kosher cookbook published in English, The Jewish Manual, let me down. While she lists recipes for other Jewish holidays—such as Passover and Purim—there’s not a word about Chanukah, let alone a recipe for potato latkes (pancakes). Read the rest of this entry »

Nov 23

Exotic history and cuisine of Caribbean Sephardic Jewry

This week I have the honor of hosting guest blogger Sophie Schiller. Ms. Schiller is the author of Spy Island, a historical novel set in the Danish West Indies. Her next novel, Race to Tibet, is due to be released soon. Visit her author page on Amazon.com.

A bit of Denmark in the New World: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

A bit of Denmark in the New World: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

The West Indies is steeped in history. Wandering down the side streets and cobblestoned alleyways of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, you feel as though you’ve been whisked back to the 17th or 18th  century. Gazing at the magnificent Fort Christian, the old barracks, and the Governor’s Mansion, you cannot help but admire her Danish colonial architecture, Danish street names, and plethora of ancient houses of worship.

Founded in 1681 as the capital of the Danish West Indies, Charlotte Amalie contains a wealth of structures that provide a glimpse into colonial life of centuries past. But what most people don’t realize is that Charlotte Amalie used to be a very Jewish city, comprised of enterprising Sephardic Jews who settled in this up-and-coming Caribbean entrepôt at the behest of the Danish kings.

Victorian-era Jews from Curaçao, 1905

Victorian-era Jews from Curaçao, 1905

After their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews migrated to Holland because of its tolerance toward Jews. After the Dutch established trading colonies in the New World, pockets of Jews began trickling into Dutch colonies such as Dutch Brazil (Recife), Suriname, Curaçao, and St. Eustacius, and British colonies such as Jamaica, Nevis, and Barbados. During this period, these former hidden Jews embraced their Jewish identity and began a religious revival of sorts.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 07

Dessert in the sukkah

Tomorrow at sundown, Sukkot, the next holiday in the Jewish holiday cycle, begins. The holiday commemorates the 40 years that the Children of Israel traveled in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt, living in temporary shelters and miraculously surrounded and shielded by “clouds of glory.”

For seven days and nights, observant Jews throughout the world dwell in a sukkah, a temporary hut with a roof of branches or reeds. We eat our meals in the sukkah. And, if it’s not too cold in our corner of the world, many of us also sleep in the sukkah.

Interior of our sukkah a few years back

Interior of our sukkah a few years back

As with most Jewish holidays, Sukkot entails many preparations, from building and decorating a sukkah, to preparing many holidays meals. Those of us with children still at home generally leave the building and decorating to the younger generation, while we women cudgel our brains for new holidays recipes and old favorites to celebrate this very special holiday also known as the Season of Our Rejoicing.

This year, as usual with my culinary preparations, I’ve started with the dessert. I think I will make two of them so that I have leftovers for the Sabbath. I haven’t yet decided on dessert No. 2, though obviously it ought to contain chocolate—lots of it! Dessert No. 1, however, will be an old favorite: fruit crisp.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 22

And now for the main course…

We are in the final countdown until Rosh Hashanah, which this year presents Jewish cooks with an additional challenge. Because the two-day holiday falls on Wednesday night, it goes directly into the Sabbath, requiring the preparation of seven meals—two for each day of Rosh Hashanah and three for the Sabbath.

appleYou may be asking yourself at this point, Gentle Reader: After eating the apple dipped in honey and all the significant omens, who has room for real food? Who even has room for honey cake?

An excellent question. However, if one were to leave the main course off the menu, a great hue and cry would arise in the household: Where is the Rosh Hashanah brisket?

As you may have surmised from the above statement, brisket is de rigueur on the Rosh Hashanah menu chez Schaefer. Generally, I try to create a mix of savory and sweet dishes for the holiday. And due to all the cooking involved, most of my recipes are very simple. My late mother’s brisket recipe meets this requirement as it is very easy to make; plus it can be tossed in the crock pot in a pinch, and cooked with potatoes and carrots so that I don’t have to mess with additional side dishes. It also tastes equally good hot or cold, which means that it can be successfully recycled through a few meals—if there are any leftovers to be had.

If you haven’t finalized your Rosh Hashanah menu yet, or are just looking for easy, tasty recipes to use throughout the year, here are some suggestions, starting with the mandatory brisket.

But now, it’s time to stop blogging and start cooking. A Shana Tova (Good Year) to all!


1 cut brisket, trimmed, any size
Dash pepper Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 21

Amazing Rosh Hashanah challah

On Rosh Hashanah, sweet foods traditionally grace the holiday table. The challah, or special egg bread, served on Rosh Hashanah is no exception. And there is nothing more heavenly then warm, home-baked challah dipped in honey, especially when it also contains luscious golden raisins.

rosh hashanah challah3If you’ve never made challah or any other type of bread, now is the time to try it. It’s also a great kids’ project, because your children can help you shape the loaves into the traditional holiday rounds that symbolize a perfect year to come.

To simplify your bread baking, use instant dried yeast, which doesn’t require proofing. I purchase a brand that comes in a vacuum pack and is found on a store shelf with other baking items. After opening the package you must store the yeast in a container in the refrigerator.

The recipe below works well with all types of flour, from white to different degrees of whole wheat. But it is totally amazing when you use white spelt flour. Because my daughter is allergic to wheat, we’ve evolved different spelt-appropriate recipes for her. This challah recipe, when made with white spelt flour, is so delicious that many of our Sabbath guests prefer it over regular wheat challah.

If Rosh Hashanah is not your holiday, this makes several delicious loaves of bread or wonderful dinner rolls for the cold months ahead, or for any time of year.

For Rosh Hashanah, many people add raisins to their challah. In the recipe below, I add the raisins directly to the dough. But you can press the raisins into strands of kneaded dough when you are shaping the loaves. If you are using whole wheat flour, you should cut down on the amount of flour by 1/2 cup, then add more flour as needed. When using whole spelt flour, you may need to add extra flour because the dough will be stickier.


9 cups wheat (any type) or white spelt flour, sifted
1/2 cup sugar (demerara or raw cane recommended) Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 18

Significant omens

If the thought of Rosh Hashanah meals evokes visions of apples and honey, kugels and tzimmes—a sweet concoction of carrots, prunes and honey—this is notice that times have changed. Over the past several decades, the tradition of eating significant omens (simanim in Hebrew) on Rosh Hashanah night has become increasingly widespread.

RimonThe custom of simanim is rooted in Talmudic tradition. The Gemara in mesechta Kerisus (6a) states: “Abaye said ‘Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates…’ ” Because of this Gemara, it is a custom to eat these foods and recite a brief prayer alluding to the symbolism of each food based on its Hebrew name.

Many people are already familiar with the Rosh Hashanah custom to eat round challahs—the special Shabbat and holiday bread—and to dip the challah and apples in honey at the beginning of the meal. The round shape of the challah symbolizes a perfect year to come. Upon eating the apple and honey, we ask that we be renewed for a good and sweet year.

Apparently, through the ages, the custom of eating the significant omens listed in the Gemara fell into disuse among Jews of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) origin. Many Jews of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) and Middle Eastern descent, however, carried on this ancient custom with foods specific to the countries in which they lived. In recent times, the custom of simanim has experienced a revival and the special blessings can be found in many Rosh Hashanah prayer books. In my own family, the simanim are a cherished and eagerly anticipated part of the meal.

Here is a list of the commonly used simanim and the prayer associated with each. These simanim are eaten immediately after the apples and honey.

  • Fenugreek, carrots or black-eyed peas: that our merits be increased. (The Yiddish word for carrots is meren, which also means “increase.”)
  • Leek or cabbage: that our enemies be decimated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 17

A Regency Rosh Hashanah meal

Next Wednesday evening marks the onset of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 5775. Known as the Day of Judgment, when each of us is judged for our actions and omissions during the previous year, the holiday requires both immense spiritual and culinary preparations.

With the exception of Passover, Rosh Hashanah probably provides the widest scope to Jewish cooks to demonstrate their virtuosity and creativity in the kitchen. Aside from the required four festive meals for the two-day holiday—two evening meals and two day meals, many Jews also eat symbolic foods on the first, and often the second, night of Rosh Hashanah and recite a short prayer alluding to the symbolism of each food. Known as “significant omens,” these foods either taste sweet and symbolize a sweet year, or indicate an abundance of merits.

Regency table setting

Regency table setting (Drawing courtesy Heather King: http://regencywriter-hking.blogspot.co.uk)


As I researched foods from the Regency period for a post about the Rosh Hashanah culinary experience, I was reminded somewhat of the lavish Regency dinner table, with its wide variety of dishes. I envisioned the significant omens placed on the table à la Regency. And while I was not entirely successful in finding Regency recipes that coincided with what we customarily eat on Rosh Hashanah today, I imagined just what ingredients the Jews of England might have used in their significant omens when they sat down to their Rosh Hashanah tables in the Regency year of 1815.

Because it is sweet and alludes to a good, sweet year, honey cake (lekach) is also customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah. The Hebrew word for honey, davash, has the same numerical value—306—as the Hebrew phrase for Father of Mercy and evokes Divine compassion and mercy. Honey cake is mentioned as a breakfast food during the Regency period, but the cake Jane Austen may have eaten would have been pricked and soaked with honey, with very little used in the batter.

rosh hashanah challahMany people also have to custom to add raisins to their challah, the special bread served on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. They shape the challahs into round loaves to express the hope that the new year will be rounded out and perfect and bring the best of everything to everyone.

I’ve included my honey cake recipe below so that you can get started on your Rosh Hashanah preparations. This recipe differs from other honey cake recipes in that it is much lighter and does not include coffee or tea in the ingredients. I call it the honey cake recipe for people who hate honey cake. Because I have a family member who is allergic to wheat, I make this recipe with 70 percent spelt pastry flour, and it is delicious. While the original recipe calls for raisins and dates, I leave them out because not everyone likes them. However, if you love chocolate, you can spread ganache on top. You haven’t tasted heaven until you have tasted honey cake with chocolate.

During the coming days, I will be adding posts with recipes for Rosh Hashanah challah, the significant omens and a few main courses for the holiday meals, so be sure to check back frequently until Rosh Hashanah. In the meantime, put on an apron and start sifting your flour for the honey cake.

Honey Cake

The resulting cake is rather small. I usually double the recipe and bake it in a Bundt pan or in three foil loaf pans. I also prefer to use oil instead of margarine, as it is healthier.

1/2 cup oil or margarine
2 eggs Read the rest of this entry »

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