Instead of cake, try wedding bread

Weddings this summer sure are different. Cocktail hour? Not likely. Dancing? Probably not. Friends and family? Perhaps a very few.

With the pandemic limiting celebrations this year, perhaps it’s time to turn to the comforting traditions of Jewish bridal breads.

The custom of baking a special wedding bread took root in Baghdad, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Kurdistan, Morocco, and Turkey. Frequently shaped in circles to symbolize the cycle of life, they were sometimes stuffed, while still unbaked, with a prayer scroll, and often paraded through the streets to the wedding itself.

Symbolically, bread makes more sense than cake: The variability of humidity, temperature, and ingredients in the dough mirrors the unknowns of matrimonial life. The malleable dough hints at the unforeseen delights and disappointments yet to unfold. As the rawness cooked away, so, too, the duo would mature.

For generations, Yemenite Jews hired bakers to produce mounds of luchoch flatbread and sabayah honeyed stacks for their nuptials. Ethiopian ambasha, enhanced with hand-styled designs, adorned their feasts. When Alsatian guests arrived for the ceremony, they were welcomed with fresh kugelhopf.

One of the most creative and multi-sensory uses of celebratory loaves comes from Eastern Europe and centers on a dance named after a challah, the koylitsh tanz. This practice ignores Jewish limitations on public performances by women in places such as Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Older female relatives, possibly an in-law, hoisted a braided long or round challah, called koylitsh. Candles or an oil lamp might be nestled inside a saffron flavored, perhaps salted loaf.

The 1936 Yiddish film Yidl Mitn Fidl features such a scene. Sometimes, a question playing on the words khale (challah bread) and kalleh (bride) was asked of the groom: “Which one do you want: the challah or the bride? Vos vilstu, di khale oder di kalleh?”

The groom also spoke words of Torah with the koylitsh displayed on a table and then distributed it to guests. As Dr. Itzik Gottesman of University of Texas at Austin explained, the bread dance conveyed the message, “They should never hunger and have everything they desire.”

Hope rested in those freshly crafted, sensuously presented, dancing breads. These days, though physically distanced, wedding guests might Zoom into the ceremony bearing a koylitsh and the happy promise a blessed life ahead. Siman Tov and Mazal tov!

Czernowitzer Challah With Saffron or Koylitsh

This recipe is from Maggie Glezer’s “A Blessing of Bread”

Yield: Makes two 1-pound challahs, one 1 1/2-pound

Ingredients


1 envelope instant yeast
About 3 3/4 cups bread flour
3/4 cup warm water (110º F)
2 large eggs, plus 1 for glazing
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 generous pinches of saffron
Poppy seeds or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)

Preparation

  1. Mixing the yeast slurry with saffron

To prepare the saffron and slurry, whisk together the yeast and 3/4 cup of the flour in a large bowl as directed. In a small sauté pan, lightly toast 2 generous pinches of saffron filaments over low heat until they curl and turn slightly darker. Slide the saffron into a mortar and pestle and grind it to a powder. Or, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, just use your fingers to crumble as fine a powder as you can manage into a small bowl. Add half the water to the saffron and mix it well with the pestle or your fingers to dissolve all the powder. Pour it into the flour and yeast. Mix the remaining water into the mortar and pestle, swish the pestle or your fingers around, and pour this into the flour mixture. Whisk the mixture together until smooth. Let the yeast slurry stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.

  1. Mixing the dough

Whisk the 2 eggs, oil, salt, and sugar into the puffed yeast slurry until the eggs are well incorporated and the salt and sugar have dissolved. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in the remaining 3 cups flour all at once. When the mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto your work surface and knead it until smooth and soft, no more than 10 minutes. (Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now, to clean it and warm it if you would like to use it for fermenting the dough.) Or, if you like, the dough can be very quickly kneaded in a food processor: Mix the ingredients together in a bowl as directed, cut the rough dough in half, and process one half at a time, then knead the halves together. If the dough is too firm to easily knead, add a tablespoon or two of water to it; if it seems too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth and firm and knead easily without sticking to the work surface.

  1. Fermenting the dough

Place the dough in the warm cleaned bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. (Or, the dough can be refrigerated right after kneading, then removed from the refrigerator to finish fermenting up to 24 hours later.) Let the dough ferment until it has at least doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, depending on the temperature in your kitchen. (If it has been refrigerated, the dough will take an extra 30 to 60 minutes to ferment.)

Shaping and proofing the dough

  1. Line one or two large baking sheets, depending on how many breads you are making, with parchment paper or oil them. Divide the dough into two 1-pound portions for loaves, one 1 1/2-pound portion for a large loaf and three smaller pieces for rolls (the easiest way to do this is to divide the dough into quarters and use three of them for the bread and the other for the rolls), or sixteen 2-ounce portions for rolls.

  2. Braid into three or more strands.

3.Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower third positions if using two baking sheets, or arrange one rack in the upper third position if using one baking sheet, and remove any racks above them. Preheat the oven to 350°F. If you like, preheat one or two baking sheets to double with the baking sheet(s) the loaves are resting on. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt for glazing the bread. Baking the loaves

When the loaves have tripled and do not push back when gently pressed with your finger but remain indented, brush them with the egg glaze. If desired, sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds. Bake rolls for 15 to 20 minutes, the 1-pound loaves for 25 to 35 minutes, or the 1 1/2-pound loaf for 35 to 45 minutes, until very well browned. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the loaves from front to back so that they brown evenly; if the large loaf is browning too quickly, tent it with foil.

When the loaves are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool on a rack.

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (Jewish Lights). She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, New York City. Most recently she has launched the #chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebration breads.

Instead of cake, try wedding bread

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