My mother had always insisted that her mother was an amazing baker, and her challah was second to none. So, when I first started baking challah, I wanted my grandmother’s recipe. But my grandmother wasn’t available for asking. She was dead, murdered by the Nazis.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was a new bride, I phoned my mother long distance, from my home in Jerusalem to her home in New York. “I don’t have a recipe,” she told me. “Why potchke? Buy! The bakery makes such good challahs.”
But I wanted to bake. I wanted to stretch my muscles, dirty my fingers, and knead my prayers into my dough as I imagined my grandmother had done.
“Are you sure you don’t remember?” I prodded.
My mother remembered one detail about my grandmother’s technique: “She used to save a piece from the dough and put it into the next week’s dough.”
From Torah classes, I knew about the Showbread of the Holy Temple, the Lehem HaPanim, and about the Matriarch Sarah’s challah—both of which remained fresh throughout the week. Since my grandmother was a rabbi’s daughter, I imagined that by saving this piece, my grandmother was copying Sarah and the ancient Temple priests. But who could be sure? I never imagined that I’d solve the mystery of this esoteric ritual—and that it would lead me to a deeper connection with my grandmother.
Born at the turn of the 20th century in Czenger, in northeastern Hungary, Cecilia Tzirel Blau was the fourth of six children. An intelligent child, she attended school until she was 16, a long time in those days. In her early twenties, she married Chaim Bleier, a handsome former yeshiva student and World War I veteran who was 10 years her senior. Less than a year later, she gave birth to a son and named him after Theodor Herzl; he died in infancy.
During childbirth, my grandmother contracted puerperal, or childbed, fever, which almost killed her. Her doctor ordered her to stop having children, but the following year she became pregnant again. Like the biblical matriarchs, her desire to give life outweighed her desire to live. Again, she became ill, but this time both she and the baby survived. That baby was my mother, my grandmother’s only child.
In 1930, my grandfather immigrated to America illegally. He planned to bring over the rest of the family, but by the time he could afford boat tickets, war had broken out. In the spring of 1944, my mother and grandmother were deported. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, a man approached them. “Nisht a tochter und a mama—shverstern,” he said: You aren’t mother and daughter—tell the Nazis that you are sisters. The Nazis were only interested in keeping young people alive, so they could work; if they’d known my grandmother’s actual age, she would have been sent to the gas chambers.
The scam nearly worked. My grandmother survived for six months. Then in October 1944, as she and my mother were being moved to another camp, my grandmother vanished. “I turned around and she was gone,” my mother recalled. No one knows whether she was shot or gassed or beaten to death. Every year on the day after Simchat Torah, my mother lights a yahrzeit candle.
I am my mother’s first child and only daughter. From my grandmother, I inherited my name—Carol is an Anglicization of Tzirel—my high cheekbones, my curly hair, my love of books and, according to my mother, a passion for baking challah.
Over time, I’ve learned about other challah recipes, shapes, and braiding techniques. I’ve heard of 12-braid challah, challah baked with chocolate chips, challah shaped like a hangman’s noose (for Purim), but I could never find a recipe that mentioned my grandmother’s practice of saving dough.
Until now. Reading Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories From the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, which came out several months ago, I found a sentence in the challah chapter that seemed to bop me over the head: “In the west of the Yiddishe heym—Germany, Austria, Hungary …. Barches were … leavened with wild yeast, giving it a pronounced sourdough flavor.”
From my own research into Jewish culinary history, I knew that barches was a European name for challah, an acronym of the phrase birkat Hashem hi teasher—the Lord’s blessing brings riches. But I’d never heard of sourdough challah. I knew enough about baking, however, to know that sourdough involves a starter, essentially a bit of fermented dough that’s saved from week to week. Could it be, I wondered, that my grandmother’s saved piece of dough was actually sourdough starter?
I phoned my mother. Like a detective ferreting out evidence, I was careful in my questioning.
“That dough your mother saved,” I asked, “what kind of container did she store it in?”
That would be a telltale sign. Sourdough starter required an earthenware or glass home to survive.
“It was a crock,” she told me.
That was it. My story about my grandmother emulating Sarah the Matriarch, carrying on the ancient tradition of the Showbread from Temple days, was as phony as Bernie Madoff’s stock fund. But I didn’t care. I was thrilled! There was no grave to visit, and only some photographs and tablecloths as mementos of a woman I never met, so this recipe would take me as close as I could ever get to her.
I got to work making my first ever batch of sourdough starter. Following the instructions in Joy of Cooking, I combined flour, water, and yeast into a substance that looked suspiciously similar to beige house paint. For a week, my starter sat on my windowsill shrouded with a white dishtowel. Like an anxious mother of a newborn, I checked it constantly, stirring it every so often with a wooden spoon to bring on the desired chemical reaction.
As Irma Rombauer writes in Joy of Cooking, sourdough is for the “adventurous, persistent and leisurely cook.” After a full week, my starter bubbled and let out a strong smell, which I hoped indicated that the desired fermentation had occurred.
Using the starter, I tried the Rich Sourdough Barches recipe from Inside the Jewish Bakery, which the authors say is adapted from the Trumat HaDeshen, the writings of 15th-century sage Rabbi Israel ben Petachiah Isserlein. Excited as I was to be taking this journey into culinary history, the cookbook’s description of a “pronounced sourdough flavor” made me fear that my challah would taste acidic, and the dough’s firmness and long rising time made me worry that my barches would be tough. So, I hedged my bet and made sourdough barches rolls instead. Since rolls weren’t quite as majestic as full-sized challahs, I reckoned that I wouldn’t feel quite as devastated if they ended up in the trash.
Throughout the baking, I kept opening the oven door to check that my rolls were rising. When they finally puffed up, I could hardly wait to taste them. I hoped they’d be good; I didn’t want to think that my grandmother, in whose memory I was doing this, baked lousy bread.
I wasn’t disappointed. Savory and strongly flavored, the rolls were wonderfully hearty, like good country bread. The following Thursday, I used the recipe to bake two wonderful loaves of challah. Since then, I’ve become a little addicted to sourdough, replenishing the starter and baking every week.
They say that the dead know the affairs of the living. Could it be that my grandmother watches me as I try to copy her? If she is, I hope she’s smiling.
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