Lately, no pastry has been safe from trendy transformation. We have the cronut, the brookie (a brownie cradling a cookie), and now, with the croissant meeting the taco, a “tacro.” So it’s no surprise that the pristine and wholesome challah is being discovered by young bakers who, undeterred by its iconic status, are eager to make it their own. From the Instagram hit #rainbowchallah to stuffed, spiced, and adventurous loaves turning heads in blogs and cooking classes across the U.S., Friday night’s favorite bread is new again.
For example, in her new Rising: The Book of Challah, rebbetzin Rochie Pinson gives readers a recipe for a kalamata-olive-and-rosemary challah, a pumpkin challah, a gluten-free challah, and a vegan challah—plus 37 braiding techniques, dutifully illustrated. But challah baking did not come naturally to Pinson. “I had no idea how to do anything in the kitchen when I got married,” Pinson said in a recent interview. Soon after her wedding, she and her husband DovBen Pinson were invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at a congregation in Japan where, Pinson was told, she’d have to bake challah for the whole community. “I rallied, and although the challah didn’t turn out that well, I got hooked,” she said. “I took that feeling back to New York, and decided I need to make challah a regular part of my life. Nothing feels like making a challah does.”
Soon, dinner guests started approaching Pinson for baking advice and recipes, building the demand for baking classes, a blog, and now a book. “I felt there was a real need, to create something with your own hands, and not just bread, but something that has spiritual meaning—and I’ve seen how baking challah infuses the whole home with that connection,” added Pinson, who now teaches regularly. For Rising, published last September, she collected all of her classic “no fail” recipes but also “went crazy”: “I had every type of grain, gluten-free, vegan, sourdough,” she said, “then I started researching different cultures and interpretations for challah from around the world, and for each Jewish holiday.”
According to Pinson, challah is the perfect vehicle for reinvention. “When I teach classes, and we have a recipe and pre-measured ingredients, I often look around the room and no two bowls of dough are the same,” she said. “Everyone pours something unique into the process.” The reimagined, wild challahs starring on blogs, at bakeries, and on Instagram? They’re simply a result of connecting with old values in the age of the foodie, an even more personal form of self-expression. “Everyone’s about food these days, familiar with exotic ingredients,” she said. “Putting that passion into feeding our family, finding that connection, that’s what it’s all about.”
Shannon Sarna, author of the 2017 book Modern Jewish Baker, connects to her challah by infusing it with dill and horseradish, then with tomatoes and basil, to celebrate her Italian heritage; in another recipe, she adds walnuts and cranberries. And for Halloween? A challah filled with candy.
The Cuban Reuben blogger and TV producer Jennifer Stemple, who lives in Los Angeles and often teaches Jewish-Latin American cooking classes, created a Cuban version for the website My Jewish Learning, adding cheese and guava to the Shabbat staple. “Stuffing a challah with guava and cheese may sound like sacrilege to some, but in my mind, it makes perfect sense,” she writes in the recipe preface.
Los Angeles residents can learn how to make neon-green matcha-flavored challah, or an indulgent banana-PB&J one, through the Challah Hub, a website and event series. Founded by Elina Tilipman and podcast host Sarah Klegman, the Challah Hub, which now delivers in Los Angeles, is, according to its website, “a game-changing wonderland of original challah flavors, innovative tasting events, baking classes and custom challah gear.”
One of the pioneers of the movement, Breads Bakery’s rich marzipan challah has gained a cult following among New Yorkers. And it doesn’t get more playful than the Challah Food Truck, of Columbus, Ohio, which creates decadent challah sandwiches, filled with anything from corned beef to fried green tomatoes. Conversion into street food is, in many ways, the culmination of the bread’s mainstream success, one the croissant has yet to reach.
Austin-based food blogger Amy Kritzer enjoys experimenting with challah in colorful new ways on her blog What Jew Wanna Eat, on Instagram, and most recently in her new cookbook Sweet Noshings, in which one highlight is a recipe for an apricot and fig-stuffed challah. “I love classic challah, but it’s just such a great canvas for unique flavors,” Kritzer said. “The basic challah is delicious but simple, so there are infinite possibilities to adding flavors, and it’s fun to think of adding seasonal flavors like pumpkin or favorites like everything bagel spice.” One of Kritzer’s Instagram hits is the rainbow challah, which in its many hues is part of a trend popping up all over the photo-centric social network. “I love adding color to the typical beige palette of Jewish food,” Kritzer said. Her first foray into rainbow challah, soon after creating the rainbow bagel, was fittingly timed for gay-pride celebrations, but, she said, “it’s become a challah people love to make with their kids, change up the colors for sports teams, or even as an easier way to teach the six-strand braid technique.” In Texas, a delicate pastel rainbow-colored challah is often made by pastry chef Anna Ryan of Texas Wildflower Desserts. “We were thinking of a cool way to do rainbow bread, and I thought the braid made it really special,” said Ryan, who originally created the marvel for a collaboration with another Dallas business, the Grilled Cheese Bros.
But without its familiar golden glow and comforting sweetness, is the new challah still a challah? “In the Bible, challah is the piece of dough you remove and give as a gift,” Pinson said. “It’s a bread for ceremonial purposes, a way to recognize and celebrate the source of our life, a symbol—and as long as you respect that, challah is essentially what you make of it.”
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.