“Are you a ripper, or a cutter?” Sarah Klegman asked me in my kitchen in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles last spring.
We were talking about challah, of course. Klegman, 27, and her baking partner, Elina Tilipman, 30, are the forces behind Challah Hub, a Jewish holy bread and social media project. They’d come over at my behest to spend an afternoon making the traditional Sabbath plaited loaves and brought with them fresh batches of challah dough and salted caramel for the braid.
It happened to be Star Wars Day (motto: “May the Fourth Be With You”), a date that my two young boys are keenly aware of. Inspiration struck.
“Ooh, let’s try to make a Darth Vader challah,” Klegman said before finding a likeness on her iPhone that she used to guide her in fashioning a loaf in the shape of the Sith lord’s helmet.
While this type of creative license might offend some challah purists, Klegman and Tilipman’s ingenuity enables them to engage with a broader audience. By riffing off of what Klegman calls the “Susie homemaker” image while harnessing modern tools of their generation, the women have created a hybrid baking group/virtual club that reflects their generation’s food and media consumption habits.
They’re challah boosters who champion their cause in person and online. On their website and in their social media feeds, Klegman and Tilipman are creating a meeting place—yes, a hub—for challah lovers to adapt the bread to adventurous tastes. For them, challah is a vehicle for cultural and culinary exploration, which means no ideas or added ingredients are off limits as long as the end result generally looks, feels, and tastes like challah.
They’ve baked pomegranate, pumpkin, vegan, gluten-free, Japanese matcha green tea powder, black tahini, and margarita cocktail-inspired egg breads. They play with shapes, along with flavor and texture. They’ve acted on tips from readers and have never looked back. “I can’t imagine my life without jalapeno gruyere challah,” Tilipman said.
Klegman and Tilipman first met in 2013 through mutual friends. “I told Sarah I’d pay for her brunch if she showed me how to make challah,” Tilipman recalled. Klegman had moved to Los Angeles five years earlier, after going to film school in Chicago. But she grew up in Traverse City, Mich., where “I was the first Jew many people met.” Her mother welcomed non-Jewish neighbors to annual Hanukkah parties—a celebration that got covered in the local newspaper—and challah was a staple of the household. Klegman still uses her mother’s basic template of three eggs and a half-cup butter. (The family doesn’t keep kosher, so using butter isn’t a problem for them.)
Tilipman came to her love of challah later in life. She was raised near Bremen, Germany, the child of Russian immigrants in a completely secular household. “My world changed,” she said, at the age of 12 when she found out her family was Jewish. She began visiting Israel regularly, where she had her first taste of challah, and traveled as an exchange student to Watertown, N.Y., to learn English at 16. After high school she moved to Berlin, where she became involved with an Orthodox Jewish student group, not as an expression of newfound religious leanings, but because “it was interesting to explore the diversity within Judaism.” There she forged connections with Israeli musicians, organizing performances and tours in Europe, and eventually relocated to Los Angeles in late 2012 to pursue a career in the music industry and multimedia.
By the time Klegman and Tilipman met, Klegman was already regularly posting photos of her homemade beautiful, but mostly conventional, challahs. “I just never met anyone before [Klegman] who really baked challah,” Tilipman said. “Usually everyone was buying it at the store for Shabbat dinners.” After that fateful brunch, the two got together for a baking session in Tilipman’s kitchen where, Tilipman recalled, they asked themselves, “there are so many other ingredients, why don’t we do something crazy?” She added, “It just happened. It was a special moment.”
In late 2013, the duo began baking incessantly, picked a name for their venture, and set up a blog and new accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Mobli. They then reached out to individuals interested in baking together to help them grow and promote their fledgling Challah Hub project.
Through social media networks and word-of-mouth (I was introduced to them via email by a friend), Klegman and Tilipman travel to kitchens around the L.A. area, or alternately invite bakers over to their homes. They then offer hands-on, tailor-made challah prep instruction for everyone from the novice baker to the aficionado for free. Besides yielding an edible result, the meet-ups offer an opportunity to indulge in challah chat and push culinary boundaries. Though mostly their clientele has been women (and well over half are Jews), they say a smattering of forthcoming appointments will tip that balance.
Most of their site visits take place on weekends or at night since both Klegman and Tilipman have day jobs working in content creation and management at Mobli, a photo and video sharing platform based in Venice, Calif. They’re resourceful millennials who have held several jobs with titles that anyone born before 1970 might find inscrutable and who’ve found a passion—challah—that they are preaching throughout the city.
At my house on that spring Sunday afternoon, we made another batch of dough from scratch while parsing the merits of cakey or fluffy textures, different kneading techniques, and the trickiness of gauging baking times. My husband, an avid home baker, prefers a darker, crustier challah, while the Challah Hub founders prefer it soft, more akin to a rich and buttery brioche. “There is no right way,” Klegman cheerfully shrugged. “We know the basics,” she said, but they embrace trial and error. In fact, accidents have made their way into their standard routine; their preference for removing the loaf during baking to add a second egg wash, for instance, started as a band-aid for troublesome dough that wasn’t adhering.
“The way they do it is really approachable,” journalist Elina Shatkin said of her Challah Hub baking experience. “You don’t have to know about Jewish culture or bread or baking or bread, or be a major foodie” to enjoy the baking process. (You also don’t have to be Jewish. But it wouldn’t hurt.) Shatkin met Klegman and Tilipman around St. Patrick’s Day, and together they collaborated on a bright-green-hued mint chocolate chip challah. “They’re fun and playful,” she said.
Certainly Klegman and Tilipman are not the first to assert a love of challah. Faye Levy, the Los Angeles-based food writer and educator, says challah is an ideal entry point for experimenting with iconic Jewish dishes. In 1986 she dedicated her column in Bon Appetit to outlining a classic challah recipe and technique, as well as offering gruyere-walnut, onion-Parmesan, and raisin-macadamia variations.
But perhaps Klegman and Tilipman are the first to try building a community of irreverent challah bakers and eaters online, outside of baking clubs typically affiliated with synagogues or JCCs. Making money isn’t their primary goal. Instead, Challah Hub reflects and joins specific currents, such as DIY culture that has taken off in this digital age, says Shatkin. Posting photos of food is now standard practice, and it has never been easier to make a homemade cooking instructional video and share it with a wide audience.
There is also, Shatkin said, “the larger food trend of people who were raised with dual- or multiple-ethnic identities who can appreciate the cultural and culinary roots of those identities, and are having fun playing with them.” Just look at Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef who helped launch the fusion food truck craze, and Harlem-based Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and whose cooking fluency ranges from the cuisine of Scandinavia to that of the American South.
Klegman and Tilipman want to jump-start a contemporary challah renaissance. They plan to roll out a line of kitchen merchandise and to host more social events, as well as forge partnerships with professional chefs and bakers. This past December, they hosted a Challah Happy Hour at Mobli’s headquarters during Hanukkah and gave away Challah Hub towels and tote bags.
It’s all part of making “challah baking attractive, silly, and accessible to the modern person,” Klegman explained. “Challah brings people together.”
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Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
1/2 cup warm water
1 packet Rapid Rise Yeast
3 1/2 cups bread flour (such as “Best for Bread”)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 chopped package of Andes Mints
1/4 cup chocolate chips, plus an additional 1/4 cup set aside for your drizzle
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup soda water
10 drops green food coloring
1/2 tsp mint extract
1 egg white (save your egg whites and use them for the glaze)
DISSOLVE: Empty your packet of yeast into a cereal bowl, then pour 1/2 cup of lukewarm water over it.
DUMP: In a big bowl, put in your 3 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 tsp salt, half a cup of sugar, your crushed Andes mints, and your chocolate chips. Whisk it all together.
SCRAMBLE: Put your 3 egg yolks in a cereal sized bowl and mix ’em up. Add your melted ½ cup of butter to the bowl. BUT make sure your butter isn’t hot, or else it’ll cook your eggs and that’s gross and bad.
DROP IT: Pour ½ cup of soda water in a cereal-sized bowl, then drop in 10 drops of liquid green food coloring, followed by 1/2 tsp mint extract (you can also add a teeny bit more if you want it super minty).
MIX: Take your big bowl of dry ingredients, and stir in all your cereal bowls of liquids, your yeasty water, your mint green soda water, and your eggy butter. Mix it all up until the dough starts to leave the side of the bowl, and then roll up your sleeves and use your hands! Get in there. You want your dough to feel smooth-ish, a little elastic, but don’t worry if it’s kinda sticky and gooey – that’s cool. Feel free to add up to 1 additional cup of flour as you’re mixing, if you feel like it’s TOO runny.
TOSS: Butter the inside of a big bowl, and drop your big ball of dough (at this point, it should look like a massive scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream). Cover it with a damp cloth, and leave it alone for 2-3 hours. DON’T PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE YOU GUYS. Just let it hang out.
BRAID: After your magical ball of ice cream challah has risen for 2-3 hours, dump it out on a floured surface, push it down and fold it a few times to get any big air bubbles out, then divide it into three even sections. Roll those sections out to long strands, then braid it. Place your braided dough on a lightly greased foil covered cookie sheet.
THE FINAL RISE: Almost there, guys. Cover your braided dough with a damp cloth again, and let it rise another hour.
GLAZE N’ BAKE: After your braid has risen for an hour, uncover it, and take your egg whites, and paint your challah. Glaze it!
GET HOT: Pre-Heat your oven to 325 degrees, then toss that puppy in for 28-35 minutes. Keep your eye on it, if you aren’t sure if it’s done or not, and the top is browning nicely, take it out, and lift it up (carefully) and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, you’re probably done.
CHOCOLATE DRIZZLE: After your challah is mostly cooled, melt the reserved chocolate chips, and drizzle it over the top.
Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.