It all started with a friendly challenge.
In 2008, Randy and Suzi Stark, who attend Columbia’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, launched a contest and fundraiser to see who in their congregation prepared the best brisket, matzoh, challah and other traditional Jewish Kosher foods.
That event today has evolved into Bubbie’s Brisket & Bakery, one of Beth Shalom’s most popular. And while the “official” competition is no longer part of the annual event, Bubbie’s – set for this Sunday – has become a favorite for folks hoping to sample some of the best homemade Kosher food around.
In preparation for the one-day festival, Beth Shalom members have been baking breads and cookies and preparing meats and noodle dishes for months. I spent a couple of mornings with two groups of volunteers baking rugelah and challah in the synagogue’s Kosher kitchens.
Beth Shalom has a conservative congregation, rather than Orthodox or Reform, and is egalitarian – meaning men and women are recognized as equals and can be rabbis, cantors and members of a minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations). As Conservatives, the members keep the Kosher tradition for food handling and preparation.
The Torah says, “You may not cook a young animal in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19). From this, to be Kosher means milk and meat products may not be mixed together – not cooked together, served together, eaten together, stored together, nor can the same utensils used for meat be used for dairy. Hence, Beth Shalom’s social hall has two full kitchens – one contains dairy products, the other meat –along with separate appliances, pots, pans and utensils.
Parve (pareve) is the third major Kosher food group and describes foods that are considered “neutral,” meaning they contain neither meat nor dairy. In this category are items that grow from the ground (fruits, vegetables, grains), fish (not shellfish), eggs (from the chicken, duck, goose and turkey are kosher as long as they contain no blood, so eggs must be checked individually when they are cracked open before use to make sure they have no veining) and non-biological edible items (water and salt). Some kitchens in Kosher homes may have a third set of dishes and cooking utensils so that parve foods can be prepared and then later served with either meat or dairy meals.
Both the rugelah and challah made at Beth Shalom are non-dairy breads, so the doughs were made and held in the meat kitchen.
Rugelah is a sweet, rolled crescent-shaped cookie with an apricot, cinnamon, sugar and walnut filling. The rugelah dough had been made the day before and portioned out so that each ball of dough would yield a dozen cookies.
Around 9 a.m., a loose assembly line formed on both sides of the worktable. The ladies – Jackie Webb, Shauna Webb, Elaine McGwire, Sharon Robinson and Carolyn Playfair – rolled out the dough, filled, cut, rolled up the cookies, placed the rugelah on baking sheets and finished with each one with a brush of melted margarine (non-dairy, parve) and a sprinkle of cinnamon before heading to the oven. I was enlisted for brushing and sprinkling duty and, by lunchtime, the ladies had baked 50 dozen cookies.
After cooling and bagging the rugelah, these cookies were added to other previously baked batches already in the freezer.
The next morning, I met another group of women, headed up by Heidi Lovit, for the challah.
Lovit was the first to arrive, noting we would be using a recipe from her Charleston aunt that she had developed over the years. Lovit began making the bread for her family, then family friends and extended family, then for the first Bubbie’s contest. She won and has become the unofficial challah maker at Beth Shalom.
As we wait for the dough to rise, Lovit talks about the religious significance of challah.
According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch and Saturday late afternoon) and two holiday meals (one at night and lunch the following day) each begin with two complete loaves of bread.
This “double loaf” commemorates the manna that fell from heaven when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The manna did not fall on the Sabbath or holiday but a double portion fell the day before the Sabbath and holiday.
The term “challah” also refers to the Mitzvah (commandment) of separating a portion of the dough before braiding the loaf. The Jewish people first became obligated to perform mitzvah of separating challah when they entered the Land of Israel. The unformed dough is placed in front of the baker and blessed, then a small piece of dough – about the size of a ping pong ball – is pinched from the unformed mass and burned (not in the oven) or wrapped in two layers of aluminum foil or plastic wrap and discarded.
After the mitzvah is complete, the dough is separated into two balls. Our challah used a four strand braid, so each ball would then be separated into four equal portions. Bakers traditionally use three or four strands for braiding the bread but there are some who use six or even seven braids for challah.
For one loaf, with the four portions rolled out into strands, the braiding began.
I have to admit that I had to ask more than once how to braid the strands to form the decorative loaf, giving up after braiding four or five loaves. I stood and watched in amazement as the women – Lovit, Sally Patterson, Lyssa Fishbein, Ellen Seidenberg, Tammy Bergman and Nachama Haas – braided about 80 loaves over the course of the morning.
This also is what Bubbie’s is about, Lovit said – a teaching moment and a chance to come together to celebrate and pass down traditions to new generations.
My Favorite Challah
Makes 2 loaves
1 1/2 packages active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon plue 1/2 cup sigar
1/2 cup vegetable oil, more for greasing bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water. Let stand five minutes until yeast begins to foam.
Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it and return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
To make a 4-braid challah, take half the dough and form it into 4 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 4 strands in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. For instruction purposes, think of the far left strand as 1, next is 2, then 3, and the far right is 4. Take the left-hand strand (1) and move it to the right over strands 2 and 3, then tuck it back under strand 3. Take the right-hand strand (4) and move it to the left over strands 3 and 1, then tuck it back under strand 1. Repeat this process until finished.
Make the second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze braids of let rise another hour in refrigerator if preferred.
To bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves with egg wash again, sprinkle with seeds. Bake bread in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden. Cool loaves on a rack.
new york times
Makes 60 cookies
NOTE: This recipe uses butter and cream cheese, which are dairy. Non-dairy equivalents can be found in most grocery stores to keep this kosher.
2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar, plus 9 tablespoons
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup apricot preserves, pureed in a food processor
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk for egg wash
Cream the butter and cream cheese in a large bowl until light. Add 1/4 cup sugar and the salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add flour and mix until just combined.
Dump the dough out on a well-floured surface and roll into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters and wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
To make filling, combine 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, the raisins and walnuts.
On a well-floured surface, one at a time, roll each ball of dough into a 9-inch circle. Brush dough with 2 tablespoons apricot preserves and sprinkle with 1/2 cup filling. Slice the circle into 12 equal wedges – slicing the whole circle into quarters, then each quarter into thirds.
Starting at the wide edge, roll up each wedge and place cookie, point tucked under, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush each cookie with egg wash. Combine 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon and sprinkle over cookies. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on rack.
Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties!
If you go
Bubbie’s Brisket & Bakery
WHEN: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Beth Shalom Synagogue, 5827 North Trenholm Road