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Grandma’s Lost Challah, Found

How I discovered a recipe for the sourdough bread my grandmother made, before she died in the Holocaust

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock)

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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bertglass says:

I wish I could remember the details.  I once attended a challah class at a Chabad house.  We were taught that the word challah had something to do with some held back.  The purpose of this, as I recall, in the days of the Temple, was to save some bread for the priests.  Since the fall of the temple, saving some back is more symbolic.  Please correct me if I didn’t state this quite right.  

 So, it makes sense that a challah recipe might use some of the saved back dough.  This also makes it pretty important to continue the ritual with a weekly use and replenishment of the sourdough.  The book I use is “Secrets of the Jewish Baker” by Greenstein.  His challah recipe features more egg yolks than whites.  Thanks for the article.  

IRIS GOLD says:

so how do I get the sour dough challah recipe

Beeline says:

I am attending a talk at London’s Centre for Jewish Life called, 
An inspiring evening with Mrs Joanne Caras “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook”: http://www.centreforjewishlife.org/index.php/social#event7

the “taking of the dough” is not related to the shewbread, or “lehem hapanim”.  it’s done with all dough: http://www.teach613.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=159&Itemid=54

tk_in_TO says:

What a beautiful tribute to your late grandmother, of blessed memory, and b’teyavon for your delicious bread, which is also the staff of life and a doubly fitting tribute to your Bubbie.

bezonline says:

Great story and it makes me want to perpetuate the tradition.  Could you share the recipes please.

Thank you.

Wayne Hoffman says:

Iris: The recipe can be found at the top of the story.

whoffman says:

 Iris: The recipe can be found at the top of the story.

Sounds like a delicious Challah! Would you please share your recipe? It sounds like the Challah my husband’s grandmother used to make but we do not have the recipe. Thanks.

whoffman says:

For the readers asking for the recipe, it’s included at the top of the story. Try it at home!

Kathy Rosenbluh says:

Dear Carol, 

That was a lovely column.  My mother, a”h, was also from northeastern Hungary, born in 1917.  She used the therm barkhes to refer to water challah, in particular, and said it was the standard challah made in her mother’s kitchen.  Is it possible that your grandmother’s recipe was actually for a sourdough-based challah with no oil or eggs in it?  Maybe your mother has some relevant info to answer that question.  Regardless, your recipe looks wonderful and I intend to try it (as soon as I can get a growing sourdough starter in my kitchen).  Thank you.

Flo_J says:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7RNK8UqRI0
(See also, above)

Flo_J says:

Beautiful article!  Thanks for sharing your personal story, it’s very moving.
One thing you said startled me, though:
“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.” 
I’m not sure why you call this “phony.”  It’s actually just right.  Sarah is mentioned in the Bible as preparing dough (Genesis, 18).  The priests in the Temple prepared 12 loaves of “face” bread. 
The commandment to separate a portion of  dough still devolves upon us today — in fact, it’s one of the few “offerings” that we made in Temple-times that we still observe.  The name “challah” for “bread” is actually a remembrance of this mitzvah.
You might find valuable this video of kabbalistic meditations for making challah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7RNK8UqRI0
The Rosh Chodesh Society division of myjli.com has a beautiful class about the mitzvah of separating challah.
I look forward to reading more of your work!

Stanley_Ginsberg says:

Knowing that Norm and I were able to help you reconnect with your grandmother’s memory and traditions gives us nakhes that is beyond words to express, and is the reason we wrote “Inside the Jewish Bakery.”  For us, it was and is a journey through memories, tastes and smells that span generations and are an integral part of the Ashkenazi Jewish experience.

Morton Rabkin says:

Beautiful story.  I still make my great grandmother’s sourdough rye recipe.  Never met her either.  

chayar says:

What a touching piece, thank you. 
All bread used to be made from a starter (if particularly tangy, called sourdough). Commercial yeast wasn’t really in use until the 20th century. Sourdough or natural starter must be yeast free. It stills produces a fine, healthy loaf today. I’ve found that the easiest, step-by-step directions that produce consistently excellent results are in Maggie Glezer’s “A Blessing of Bread.”  Also, please check out this article at my blog healthyjewishcooking.com which discusses sourdough and describes a technique for making it.Also, I don’t want to belabor the point since in her comment Flo explained why all Jews did and many still do, separate challah, but I’d like to add that the reason why we call Shabbos bread challah is because challah is actually the name for the piece of dough that was taken and given to the Kohanim, the priests in Temple times. Today, many Jews still remove the piece from the dough (there are certain requirements to do this), make a blessing, and burn the piece. Challah is related to the Hebrew, chelek, or portion. R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh states that challah is an acronym for chelek la’olam haba, a portion of the world to come. As we take the piece of dough we should meditate on the idea that we are preparing our portion in the world to come. It is also a time we pray for our ourselves and others.

thank you for all the wonderful comments. I wasn’t referring to Hafrashat challah but merely to saving a piece of dough which I in my fantasies I thought was related to the secret Lehem Hapanim recipe. I hope that wasn’t confusing. Kathy Rosenbluh, please send me your recipe to tzirelchana@kosherhomecooking.com I’d love to try it.Maybe that is the real one.

Faye Levy says:

What a beautiful, touching story.  It brought tears to my eyes.  Bravo to you for persisting!

By the way, sourdough starter is made with no yeast, just flour and water…

I recently started baking challah and my parents, as a nod to my efforts, sent me your book as a gift. I have yet to try any of the recipes…have been too caught up in the fabulous narrative. I feel as though a part of my parent’s and grandparents’ experiences have been made available to me in your accounts.

Jayson2 says:

I wonder if you’d be interested in the challah on the link? The process is similar to what you describe your Mother saying, what your Grandmother did, when baking Challah. Using her saved dough.
 
As with your Grandmother’s challah being made with saved dough , a piece of prefermented, or old dough, is saved & used  for the next baking, in this challah recipe as well. 

http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2011/02/24/olive-oil-challah-with-prefermented-dough/

emunadate says:

A lovely story. If you are into cooking, you may want to see 
http://emunadate.blogspot.co.il/2012/06/kosher-walnut-crusted-chilean-sea-bass.html

Karen Vaughan says:

So will you give us the recipe?  For starter as well as challah.

Rebecca Klempner says:

I was inspired by this article and used a sourdough starter (I had a batch brewing because of another family recipe) last week in my usual water challah recipe. The only thing I did differently was take my starter
left from a batch made the week before and combine it with 2 more cups water and 2 more cups flour, then let it mature for about 6 hours. I took 2 cups of this resulting mixture, then substituted it for 1 cup of my normal recipe’s flour and 1 cup of its water. 

I think that Carol’s rolls might have been too dense because she didn’t let them rise long enough. In order for them to get really fluffy, I had to let them rise 4+ hrs. But the result was AMAZING. Declared the absolute best challah ever by my very picky eldest child. Had a fragrance and a bouquet almost like fine wine.

Kathy Rosenbluh says:

Carol, i think your request for a recipe is really intended for Rebecca Klempner,  who mentioned making sourdough water challah, not me.

I would also love to try that recipe. (I have never managed to get a sourdough starter going, so that would be step 1 for me!)

Love your book.  I am from a long line of Jewish bakers and your formulas took me back to my lost childhood.  Thanks to you and Norm.

Carol, thank you for sharing your story and recipe(I want to try it). I also come from Hungarian Jewish lineage. The funny thing is, my middle name is from my cousin, who died in a car crash 4 weeks after I was born. Her name? Carol Unger (with an e)… Small world…

cub scout mom says:

I am disappointed in this article. Did you {author} send a piece to your mother, or next time you two were together, give her a piece to try to see if it tasted like the original?

Jmk says:

Your grandmother might not have made sourdough challah, but just used a piece of “old dough” (“altus”) mixed in with the new ingredients. This adds a depth of flavor to breads, even those made with modern dry yeast or the fresh yeast cakes she might have used.

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Grandma’s Lost Challah, Found

How I discovered a recipe for the sourdough bread my grandmother made, before she died in the Holocaust

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