“When you bake your own challahs for the Sabbath, they have a different taste entirely. Your heart rises as you watch the loaves rise in the pan.”--Chaim Grade, My Mother’s Sabbath Days
Though he lived to be 94, my grandfather never tasted an ice cream that could match the ones he remembered buying from the old Turkish vendor back in Minsk or Smolensk before he arrived in New York at age 12.
He taught me a valuable food lesson: our most cherished food memories inevitably lead to disappointment. Perhaps that is because our culinary selves are constantly evolving--we taste the world with a different tongue at various times in our lives. Or maybe no real food could ever live up to one garnished with the patina of memory, seasoned with age.
For me, with Ratner’s oniony egg rolls, it was a little of both. In the years since the demise of the beloved dairy restaurant on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, I’ve tasted many versions of the rolls, some purportedly made exactly according to the recipe published in The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook. None excited the way the oniony little breads, smeared with cold sweet butter, did.
To paraphrase, the fault was not with the rolls, but with me that they were underlings. What I was after was far more oniony and buttery-tasting than the rolls had ever been.
My good friend Mary McLarnon, a consummate baker, had never tasted Ratner’s onion rolls, but as I explained the taste memories that I wanted the challah in my book, Jewish Holiday Cooking, to channel (challah and Jewish egg rolls are often made from the same rich dough), her blue eyes lit up. Since the bread had to be pareve, we talked about doing a triple rise to achieve the butteriness. A few days later, Mary dropped off two fragrant loaves for us to taste.
Not satisfied, Mary kept working on ways to boost the onion flavor until it tasted as incredibly aromatic as it smelled. The touch of cumin, reminiscent of Alsatian-Jewish bakeries, somehow made it more buttery.
Finally Mary brought another two loaves to taste. There were five of us that night, and we polished off every crumb.
It wasn’t Ratner’s onion roll. It was better.
I confess that I am spoiled these days when it comes to challah: I can purchase terrific exemplars just a few blocks from my house. Hot Bread Kitchens makes a scrumptious whole wheat challah. And Breads Bakery, an outpost of the fabulous Tel Aviv bakery, Lehamim, recently opened in Union Square. There, Uri Scheft’s festive challah—each section sprinkled with a different kind of seed—is shaped like a ring. It looks like a gorgeous royal crown, and the space in the center would be perfect to hold a little bowl of Rosh Hashanah honey.
Still, as Chaim Grade’s mother says in the excerpt from My Mother’s Sabbath Days above, it is always special to make your own, whether for Rosh Hashanah or Shabbat. So here are my favorite recipes, including Mary’s Onion Challah.