Challah, Take Two

When I first started this column almost a year and a half ago, my first recipe was for challah, the braided egg bread used to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath.

I used the recipe my husband, Joe, uses almost every week and included a little video showing how to braid the challah. If you want to be really wowed by challah-braiding techniques, check out this video from Israel.

I don’t want to make a habit of repeating recipes – and indeed this week’s offering is a different recipe for challah – but I wanted to tell you about a something special that took place in Detroit on October 23.

A great big baking event

It was the Great Big Challah Bake, and it was the opening event of a worldwide event called the Shabbos Project.

Shabbos (SHAbiss) is the Yiddish word for Sabbath and many Jews of Eastern European descent still pronounce it that way, especially Orthodox Jews. In Hebrew it’s ShaBAHT.

The Shabbos Project was started last year by Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, as a Jewish unity project. The idea was to have all Jews in the country, no matter what their usual level of religious practice, observe one Sabbath in October together.

The celebration included a challah bake on Thursday night, Sabbath dinners on Friday night (since Sabbath starts at sundown Friday), religious services and lunches on Saturday, and a huge outdoor concert after the Sabbath ended at nightfall.

People invited others to Sabbath meals in their homes, and several communities held large outdoor dinners that attracted hundreds. The final concert in Johannesburg attracted 50,000.

Celebrating the Sabbath together

This year Dr. Goldstein took the project global. More than 400 cities around the world set up Shabbos Project committees to try to replicate the South Africa experience October 23, 24 and 25.

I went to the Great Big Challah Bake as a reporter for the Detroit Jewish News. It was held in a large banquet hall. When I walked in I was amazed.

Oblong tables covered with blue plastic tablecloths fanned out across the hall. Each table held 14 large foil roasting pans; each pan contained everything needed to make a batch of challah: a 2-lb. sack of flour, a 16-oz. bottle of water, two eggs and small plastic containers of carefully measured-out yeast, sugar, salt, and oil.

Each pan also held rubber gloves, a mixing spoon, a large plastic mixing bowl, a recipe card and an apron emblazoned with the name of the event.

More than 300 women of all ages from across the religious spectrum – from very Orthodox to non-observant – participated in the Great Big Challah Bake. Some bake challah regularly for their families. Some had never baked bread before.

Together they mixed and shaped loaves of challah, which they took home to bake.

The event was free. Materials were provided by anonymous donors.

Mixing and kneading

We dumped our yeast and sugar into the mixing bowl and added the water. We let the mixture sit until it bubbled. Then we added the eggs, oil and salt, and finally the flour, mixing with our hands when the dough got too stiff to mix with the spoon.

I enjoyed mixing up challah dough while chatting with the half-dozen women around me and learning a little bit about the history and meaning of challah.

The term “challah” actually refers to a portion of the dough that was taken out and burned, a commandment that dates to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, said Henna Millburn, one of the event coordinators. Today instead of burning it’s acceptable to take a small portion of the dough, wrap it twice and throw it away.

Baking challah is a “labor of love” that brings women together, said Millburn. “What binds us is not the ingredients, it is the Torah we share as Jews,” she said.

I offer this story because other religious or social groups may want to do something similar. Cooking with others can be great fun and it’s a good inter-generational activity.

You don’t have to make challah or even bread. Pick a food that has meaning for your group and a recipe that can be assembled in one place, transported somewhere else and cooked there a little later. This would certainly work for making cookie dough.

Get a group of volunteers together and set things up to make the process easy. Use disposable everything to minimize cleanup. If it’s something wet, like soup, provide a large, covered plastic container so participants can take the uncooked dish home.

If the recipe involves a waiting period – like the 30 minutes for the challah dough to rise before shaping it – plan to share some stories or use the time to hold a brief prayer service.

My challah wasn’t as beautiful as my husband’s – I never did get the hang of braiding it, and it turned out rather blob-like. But it tasted wonderful, and so I’m happy to pass on this easy recipe.

(And you don’t have to braid it. The bread would be equally delicious baked in a loaf pan, or you can make round loaves by making balls of dough – a larger ball in the center and six smaller balls around it, all touching.)

A Brit acclimates to American cuisine (with a recipe for baked beans)

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: Twenty years ago my husband, Joe Lewis (who was born in Poole, Dorset, England) became an American citizen. This seemed like a good opportunity for him to reflect on the culinary changes he encountered as part of the Americanization process. (To read more about our nation of immigrants, you’ll enjoy this series by Michigan State University’s Joe Grimm.)


On the Fourth of July 20 years ago I joined more than 100 people born in dozens of countries as we became citizens of the United States. The sunny summer day was perfect for a joyful but serious ceremony at Hart Plaza on the riverfront in downtown Detroit.

This was 22 years after I’d arrived in the United States, and while I chafed at being taxed without representation, I was perfectly happy being a “resident alien” in possession of a green card that enabled me to study and work here.

But I heard that the price of the green card was going to go up to more than the price of a passport. When my card was up for renewal, I applied for citizenship.

It didn’t take much to transfer my gastronomic allegiance to the U.S. British food was not a heritage to cling to. We British long ceded culinary expertise to the French, even though (in our opinion) they smelled of garlic and couldn’t make a proper cup of tea.

British food: at least it fills you up

British food could be satisfying. Baked beans on toast makes a filling breakfast. Or spaghetti on toast—not the Italian kind of spaghetti that requires boiling pasta in water but the kind that comes out of a can. For a bold international experience, we might use an American condiment like ketchup, good for ketchup sandwiches! Our food may not have been chic, like French food, nor tasty, nor nourishing, nor sophisticated, but if you ate enough you could fill yourself up.

My father was the family cook. My mother never felt confident as a cook after a setback in elementary school. She was given the opportunity to cook the cabbage for school lunch—imagine the smell!—and despite all her careful cutting and rinsing and stirring, the cabbage never cooked. Finally, the teacher realized that nobody had turned on the heat. Of course, the child shouldered the blame.

My father, on the other hand, had been a cook in the British army and developed a fine reputation, because he knew how to make tea drinkable, which put him a full step above the finest French gourmet cook. At four o’clock in the afternoon, he’d run a tea towel up a pole to indicate a fresh pot of tea was available, and the soldiers would come running. His secret was simple: he cleaned out the pot; if need be, he’d use some sand to remove the tannic residue.

A nasty introduction to American cuisine

I arrived in the U.S. in August of 1972, hot and thirsty in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity. “Oooh, you have to try root beer, it’s a real American drink,” said my beloved as we reached the New York Port Authority from JFK Airport, sweating and woozy with jetlag. I took one sip from the frosty can and almost gagged. How could anyone drink such stuff? I have never drunk it since.

I spent my first weeks in America living with my in-laws in Philadelphia. Shortly after we arrived they took us out for a real treat: a trip to Greenwood Dairies, in then-rural Bucks County, for ice cream. I like American ice cream—British ice cream rarely rose above the gustatory level of a Klondike bar with the metal wrapper that sets your teeth on edge—but quantity sometimes seems to be more important than quality.

At Greenwood Dairies, the scoops were the size of softballs. On one of my first visits there I was horrified to see a young child, his scoop only half-eaten, puking in the parking lot. Suddenly, my appetite for ice cream disappeared.

Greenwood Dairies had a concoction called the Pig’s Dinner, similar to the well known Pig’s Trough at Farrell’s. It was five gigantic scoops of ice cream with a banana, a half-dozen flavored syrups and whipped cream. If you ate one unassisted you received a button that said, “I was a pig at Greenwood Dairies.” I never sought to qualify, but my beloved has one of the buttons in her vast button collection, picked up at a flea market.

After my swearing-in ceremony as an American citizen, we held a backyard barbecue for our friends. We served those all-American favorites: hot dogs and apple pie. (I’ve always liked soft, bouncy sausages with apples. When I was a child, occasionally the family cook would treat us to boiled viennas from a can, which we could dip in applesauce. However, as the American poet Walt Whitman might have said, I hear America retching.)

We also served home-made baked beans, which are different from Heinz (but would go very well on buttered toast and a decent cup of tea). The beans used for baking are native to North America, and the idea of baking them in sauce probably originated in New England, which is why they’re often called Boston baked beans and why Boston is often called Beantown.

This recipe came from Robert Wright, who ran the graduate program in religion at Temple University, where my wife worked the first year after we married.

It takes some advance planning, because you need to soak the beans overnight, then boil them, then cook them in a slow oven for eight hours. If you don’t want to have your oven on that long in the summer, use a slow cooker, or just sit outside all day, instead of in the hot house, and enjoy the warm weather. If you’re not kosher, halal  or vegetarian, you can throw in a hunk of salt pork when you put the beans in the oven..

(Recipe photo by Sonia, via Flickr Creative Commons)


Mark the Spring Equinox by destroying Le Nain Rouge (and eating baked French Toast)

Let New Orleans have its Mardi Gras!  Detroit has the Marche du Nain Rouge, a unique parade designed to force the Red Dwarf (Le Nain Rouge) from the city.

This isn’t necessarily a story about food, but I wanted to do something related to the Spring Equinox and I found the legend of Le Nain Rouge intriguing. Supposedly whenever Le Nain has been sighted, a great tragedy has happened in the city.

First sighted in 1701

Le Nain Rouge was first seen by Detroit’s founder, Antione de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701. He was strolling just outside the walls of Fort Ponchartrain, site of the original settlement, when Le Nain crossed his path. Cadillac drove it off, but it cursed him as it retreated.

Cadillac’s life was never the same. He was indicted by the French government on charges of illegal trafficking, removed from power and imprisoned. Although he was eventually cleared, he never regained his fortune or land in Detroit.

A portent of disaster

Later, Le Nain was spotted before a disastrous clash between the British and Chief Pontiac’s tribe; 58 British soldiers were killed. People claim to have seen Le Nain Rouge in 1805, just before a fire destroyed much of the City of Detroit.

During the War of 1812, General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit without firing a shot after he reported seeing a dwarf dancing nearby. He became the only American officer sentenced to death for military incompetence (he was reprieved by President James Madison).

More recently, Le Nain was spotted in 1967, just before a week of civil disturbances erupted in Detroit, and in 1976, just before one of the worst ice storms the city ever experienced.

How will you recognize Le Nain Rouge if you see him? He’s not a very attractive character. He’s supposed to be child-sized and wear brown clothing with red or black fur boots. He has blazing red eyes and rotten teeth.

Drive him out!

La Marche du Nain Rouge drives the red dwarf out of Detroit, preventing him from plaguing the city and its residents for another year. It’s held on the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox, which is appropriate timing, since the Spring Equinox symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings in numerous cultures.

La Marche du Nain Rouge is a parade and street carnival, similar to Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations.

A local dresses up as Le Nain Rouge, with a mask to conceal his (or her) identity. Le Nain leads the parade, followed by 12 Detroiters called La Bande du Nains. The band consists of a man, woman and child from each of four continents: Africa, the Americas (North and South), Asia and Europe. They dress in 18th century costumes, like the Detroiters who first drove Le Nain from the city, and carry pots and pans, sticks and canes.

Le Nain and La Bande are followed by musicians, floats and individual marchers. Costumes run the gamut from supernatural creatures and historical and political figures to just wild and crazy.

Originally La Marche du Nain Rouge followed one of Detroit’s oldest streets south to the Detroit River, where Le Nain was thrown. More recently, the march has ended at a city park where an effigy of Le Nain is burned.

If you’re anywhere near Detroit next Sunday, come join the fun! The march starts at 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the Traffic Jam and Snug, Canfield and Second, and moves down Cass to Temple, ending in Cass Park.

A not-really-French recipe

What does all this have to do with food? Not much, as I’ve already admitted, but I thought this was a cool story. In looking for a recipe to conclude this column, I remembered a great recipe for baked French toast. OK, so that’s not really French–but it’s a wonderful dish! It comes from a bed & breakfast we once stayed in called the Music Box Inn in Whitehall, Michigan.

You can use low-fat milk instead of the half & half if you want to reduce the fat, and it will still taste good – just not as good! With the half & half, it’s very rich and extremely delicious.

Be sure to use real maple syrup, not any of that god-awful fake stuff, and note that you need to start preparing it the night before you plan to eat it.

(The photo with the recipe is by Baking Junkie, via Flickr Creative Commons.)