The Best Loaf: Bay Area Challahs
The San Francisco Bay Area has one of the largest Jewish populations in North America. But unlike communities in places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto, it has no identifiably Jewish neighborhoods filled with Jewish bakeries, butchers, delis and food shops.
The lucky few who live near one of the local Jewish bakeries can stop by to pick up their bread. But for everyone else, supermarkets and even the front desks of Jewish community centers and synagogue nursery schools are the way to get the good stuff, thanks to challah distribution networks around the city.
With the High Holidays fast approaching, store shelves (and those front desks) will soon be stocked with round challahs with raisins and other treats. Here is a taste of five different plain loaves popular with Jewish residents of the Bay Area. Prices range from $2.99 to $6.75 per challah.
Irving’s Premium Challah
San Francisco’s Irving Greisman and his son Ben started their kosher challah baking business a decade ago as a service to the Jewish community. Their logo is “Taste the Difference,” and many Bay Area Jews are adamant that Irving’s does taste different—and better—than other challahs. This, as well as the knowledge that his Shabbat bread encourages families to sit down together for a meal on Friday night, is what keeps Irving going with the business.
The challah is spongy and moist thanks to two kinds of oil — olive and canola — that are mixed in to the dough. Its medium brown crust and mildly sweet taste is also something that draws comments like, “Hands down, the best challah!” on the company’s Facebook page.
Grand Bakery is an Oakland institution. Owner Bob Jaffe took over the kosher bakery in 1998, but the business has been going strong since 1959. Non-kosher Jewish food establishments (including one called Ernie’s Strudel Palace) have stood on the same spot dating back to the 1930’s.
“Our challah tastes especially good because our oven dates to the late 1930’s. It’s a revolving oven with gas burners on the bottom, not a convection one,” says Jaffe. “It’s big enough that we are able to make several oversize four-foot-long, 10 pound challahs for simcha orders every Shabbat.”
Fans of a tightly braided, fairly sweet and very dense egg bread go for this particular challah. Its density and chewy texture make for good French toast on weekend mornings; the bread slices stand up to being soaked in an egg and milk mixture without falling apart before hitting the frying pan.
Jaffe’s High Holiday specialty is his dried mix fruit round challah. It contains apples, peaches, pears, apricots and raisins, and comes in one and two pound sizes (Jaffe says he’ll go up to six pounds on special orders).
The sign above the door inside this hip Jewish deli in San Francisco’s Mission District reads, “In America you can eat challah everyday.” It’s no lie, at least at Wise Sons, where you can get a sliced challah sandwich loaf any day of the week, and a braided one on Fridays. Both are topped with flaked Maldon sea salt.
It’s well worth the weeklong wait for the braided challah. It tastes and smells delicious. Beneath its darkish crust is fluffy and airy bread that has a distinctive sweet flavor with fruity and floral notes. “It may be the honey. That’s the only sweetener we use in it,” is how co-owner Evan Bloom explains the unique taste.
Like all its breads, Wise Sons, bakes its challah in-house at is commissary bakery. The only drawback is that it’s only available for purchase at the deli, requiring a long trip in from the suburbs for those who don’t live in San Francisco.
Bloom promises there will be an equally delicious Wise Sons round challah with raisins for Rosh Hashanah.
Semifreddi’s, a family-owned large wholesale artisan baking company in the Bay Area, also uses honey in its kosher challah recipe. But the bread is not at all sweet, and is great for those watching their sugar and carbohydrate intake (only 4 grams of sugar in a 1.8 oz serving).
Available at local Trader Joe’s supermarkets and other grocery stores, the challah has a dark crust and is moist inside, but tastes more like a regular loaf of white bread than an egg-y Shabbat bread.
Semifreddi’s also uses its challah dough to make its burger buns, as well as its Cinnamon Twist. For that, it rolls the dough strands in cinnamon before braiding them, and baking the bread in a loaf pan, instead of on a baking tray.
Like other area bakeries, Semifreddi’s makes a round raisin challah for Rosh Hashanah.
Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels
Many Jewish Silicon Valley residents make a regular early Friday morning challah run to Izzy’s on California Avenue in Palo Alto (or to a newer second location in neighboring East Palo Alto). It is not advised to wait until the afternoon to head to the bagel shop, as most of the loaves are snatched up earlier in the day.
Izzy’s kosher challah beats many grocery store-bought challahs in both taste and texture. The bread is semi-dense, moist, and leans toward the sweet side. It would be somewhat difficult to tell the difference between it and Irving’s challah in a blind taste test.
Regular Izzy’s customers know the only way to guarantee getting the bakery’s round challah (with or without raisins) for Rosh Hashanah is to order them in advance.