Breaking (and Baking) Bread With Communities From Around the Globe

THE FOOD MAVEN by Matthew Goodman

At a certain point, every Jewish-cookbook writer has to confront the issue of mortality: the fact that most traditional Jewish foods, like most traditional Jewish languages, have either vanished or are in the process of vanishing before our eyes. Of the 20,000 words included in the leading Yiddish dictionary, only a handful are still in common usage, and the situation is not much brighter in the realm of Jewish cuisine. Around the world, most of the foods that were staples a few generations ago would be scarcely recognizable today. For every matzo ball that is still festooning a bowl of chicken soup, every potato latke still shining in the light of the menorah, there are innumerable other dishes, the names of which are no longer even remembered.

The easiest approach, and the one favored by many Jewish-cookbook writers, is to sidestep the issue of mortality by way of sentimentality. And so we are given books that play heavily on nostalgia and grandmotherly love, and amid amusing family anecdotes recycle the fractionally few dishes that have managed, thus far, to avoid the onrushing force of extinction. These books are sometimes well done, and are pleasant enough to read, but given the parlous state of the cuisine as a whole, their merry airs sound faintly like those of the band playing a few last melodies as the great liner begins to sink into the sea.

There are other authors, however, who choose a different path, who face mortality head on and attempt to stave off the wholesale extinction of a culture’s foods — at least for a while — by preserving dishes otherwise in danger of being lost and bringing them to a new generation of readers. These are efforts nothing short of heroic. One thinks, for instance, of Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Food,” with its encyclopedic cataloging of traditional Jewish foods around the world; or, more narrowly, the writings of the late Copeland Marks, whose work brought wider attention to the extraordinary, and much-neglected, cooking of the Jewish communities of India.

To these books we now can add a new one, Maggie Glezer’s “A Blessing of Bread,” recently published by Artisan Books. In this cookbook, Glezer — whose first book,“Artisan BakingAcross America,” received a James Beard award — has recovered more than 60 traditional Jewish breads from home cooks in communities around the world. Though this is a relatively small number of recipes, taken as a whole their diversity, both geographic and culinary, is bracingly broad. There are breads from all the major Jewish traditions — Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African and Near Eastern — ranging from austere flatbreads to elaborately shaped yeast breads, sourdough country breads to sweet pastries. The book includes classic renditions of some well-known breads (such as challah, matzo and pita), but far more of them are today rarely recalled, and even more rarely baked. Here, for instance, is the churek made by the Jews of Rhodes, an unsweetened challah baked for the Sabbath; here is the Moroccan chubzeh di Purim, an ornate, anise-flavored loaf that uses hard-boiled eggs to replicate “Haman’s eyes”; the cheese-stuffed Egyptian rarif al rarif, and noon rogani, the spectacular-looking spiral loaf that was a staple for special occasions among the Jews of Azerbaijan. Here are Turkish roscas and Hungarian beiglik, Ethiopian bereketei and Bukharan nooni tokhi, as well as some of Glezer’s own modern versions of classic Jewish loaves.

Ukraine was the epicenter of the art of challah shaping, and the long section that re-creates its ceremonial loaves was for me the most thrilling part of the book. Glezer provides photographs illustrating the challah-shaping process, and I found myself surprisingly moved by actually seeing the intricate challahs that I had only ever read about — the faigele (“little bird” in Yiddish), the bird-shaped spiral fashioned for the New Year; the shlissel, or “key” challah, served on the first Sabbath after Passover, to recall symbolically how God unlocked the gates of sustenance for the Israelites; the ladder challah for Shavuot, and perhaps most dramatically, the challah for Hoshana Rabbah, a hand extended to receive God’s judgment on the last day of the penitent season. In addition, the challah section includes photographs of the more common shapes, demonstrating how to make a challah using only a single strand, or with any other number up to six, plus even more elaborate compound braids (koyletch, in Yiddish) that combine several braided challahs into one huge, gorgeous crown loaf for special occasions. My own challah-baking skills are passable, but not much more, and I usually content myself with a simple three-strand braid; finishing this book, I was inspired to increase that number by a factor of two or more.

Glezer is an American Institute of Baking-certified baker, and it’s readily apparent that she has a profound appreciation for, as well as a deep understanding of, bread, both of which qualities she has been able to communicate in “A Blessing of Bread”; the book is full of helpful details that make it highly accessible, and indeed even educational. There is, for instance, a “baker’s primer” that explains the differences among various types of flours, salts and yeasts, and provides a basic introduction to the tools of the baker’s trade, from pastry scrapers and baking stones to rolling pins and digital scales. Glezer also gives careful instruction in proper technique — more essential in baking bread than in perhaps any other type of cooking — such as measuring ingredients (which most home bakers get wrong), adjusting for correct dough consistency and getting the best results from kneading, fermenting and proofing. And for the time-pressed modern cook, she also explains how to fit bread-baking into a busy schedule — it’s actually not that hard, for, as she points out, “most of the time spent in making bread is waiting” — and how to bake in large batches, to have extra loaves to freeze for later.

Oddly enough, these last points might turn out to be the most important information in the whole book. Because bread-baking tends to be time consuming, it’s seen as being especially arduous, and as a result, it’s usually the first item in the traditional kitchen repertoire to get scuttled. (How many people do you know who still bake their own bread?) After all, it’s just so much easier to buy a plastic-wrapped bag of pita, or one of those overly sweet challahs from the neighborhood bakery (not to mention the pillowy-soft bagels that are today omnipresent). But of course that bread won’t be nearly as delicious, nor, in so many respects, as satisfying as the one you bake yourself. This is perhaps especially so with a bread that is no longer much in vogue. Two centuries ago, French gastronome Brillat-Savarin aphorized, “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.” So, too, we might say, with the rediscovery of an old one — an ancient, durable star whose light, remarkably, has not yet gone out.

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This is one of Maggie Glezer’s inspired modern renditions of classic Jewish breads. The olive oil makes the bread especially moist, while imparting a beautiful pale green color to the inside. This challah is also an especially healthful one, as it contains lots of olive oil (a mono-unsaturated fat, which reduces LDL cholesterol) and no butter, sugar or eggs. Glezer points out that because this dough tends not to hold its shape as well as other kinds, it should be formed into a simple ring or a round or single-strand braid, as opposed to the fancier braided forms used in other challahs. Make sure that you use instant yeast (also known as RapidRise, Quick Rise and bread machine yeast), not the active dry yeast found in packets, as the latter is less potent than instant yeast and requires an initial proofing in warm water.

Olive Oil Challah

Adapted from “A Blessing of Bread,” by Maggie Glezer (New York: Artisan Books, 2004).

1 teaspoon instant yeast

3 3/4 cups bread flour

1 1/4 cups warm water

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt

sesame seeds for sprinkling

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and one-and one-quarter cups of the flour, then whisk in the warm water until smooth. Let stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, until it begins to ferment and then puffs up slightly.
2. Whisk the oil and salt into the yeast mixture until smooth. With your hands, or with a wooden spoon, mix in the remaining flour. Place on a lightly floured surface, and knead until the mixture is soft and fairly smooth, about five minutes. (If the dough is too firm, add a tablespoon or two of water; if it is too wet, add a bit of flour.)
3. Place the dough in a large bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand until it has tripled in volume, about three hours.
4. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or with oiled aluminum foil. Divide the dough in half. Shape the dough halves into rings or rounds, or braid them using a single strand. Place them on the prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for eight to 24 hours.
5. About two-and-a-half hours before baking, remove the loaves from the refrigerator. Let stand until they have tripled in volume.
6. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
7. Brush the loaves all over with water, then sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Place in the oven, and bake until very deeply browned, about 40 minutes. (After the first 30 minutes, turn the pan around for even baking.) Remove, and let cool on a rack until completely cooled.

Makes two loaves.

Breaking (and Baking) Bread With Communities From Around the Globe

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