Making Challah By The Book


‘Start with challah,” Uri Scheft suggests to a rookie baker.

Scheft is the creative force and co-owner of the much beloved Breads Bakery in New York City, owner of Tel Aviv’s Lehamim Bakery, and now the author of “Breaking Breads” (Artisan Books). Just published, the cookbook instructs home bakers in making the delicacies served in his bakeries.

In fact, the first recipe in the book is for challah, the basic version before “Black Tie Challah” (a thin braid over the top is covered in nigella or black sesame seeds), Chocolate and Orange Confit Challah, and Challah Falafel Rolls.

Beyond the challah variations, there are recipes for focaccia, kubaneh (a rich Yemenite bread that’s a cross between a brioche and a flatbread), Jerusalem bagels, burekas, buns, mutabak (means “folded” in Arabic – a thin, crisp stuffed pastry), sweets like tahini cookies and apple strudel, Breads’ famous chocolate babka, savory hamantashen with beets and hazelnuts, arak and sesame sticks, and, to go along with the bread, tahina, labne, and distinctive spreads.

I met Scheft, who lives mostly in Israel, in the original Union Square location of Breads, which opened in 2014. A café and bakery, the place attracts shoppers from the nearby Greenmarket and others in search of handmade bread and pastries, and, particularly on the weekends, many Israelis. The décor is modern, Scandinavian, heimish; the aroma is heavenly.

“Bread and home are just very strong for me,” says Uri Scheft.

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Con Poulos

Scheft is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He finds that his daily practice of yoga, along with a lot of meditation, improves the quality of his life. When he shows his hands, they look sturdy.

He was born in Israel in 1972 to Danish parents who had made aliyah 11 years earlier. He remembers their home being deliciously fragrant every Friday when his mother would make challah with the kindergarten students who met in their house. From early on, he was drawn to the kitchen.

“Bread and home are just very strong for me,” he says.

When he was 10 the family moved from Ra’anana to Copenhagen – his parents wanted the family to take in Danish culture and get to know their family. He returned to Israel to serve in the army, then traveled in India and China, and studied biology at Tel Aviv University.

His parents, both teachers, chose their profession not out of passion but in order to have skills that would translate. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to do something he loved. In a later trip to India, he had one of those “aha” moments and realized he wanted to take up baking seriously. He went back to Copenhagen to study in a top cooking school, and after a day knew this was the path he wanted. While studying and apprenticing, he also traveled to learn from other traditions. After a few years, he went back to Israel, got to know the local scene and suppliers, and in 2001 opened Lehamim (which means breads) Bakery in Tel Aviv. He would go see Arab, Druze, and other bakers for inspiration — not to document specific recipes, but to see what they were doing. From his wife’s family, he learned about Yemenite and Moroccan baking.

Breads sells challah and other breads and rolls (including raisin walnut, olive, caraway rye, North Sea rye, and whole wheat varieties), pastries, and sandwiches. In a regular week, it sells about 1,000 loaves of challah, and perhaps 3,000 over the holidays. He notes that in Israel, Lehamim makes challah only for Shabbat, but here there’s a demand for the “Jewish bread” all week.

While his New York bakeries use only kosher ingredients and serve no meat products, they do not have kosher certification (his bakeries in Israel do have rabbinic certification). Scheft, who grew up in a strictly kosher home, explains that in New York the bakeries are open seven days a week, which is essential in the middle of the city. In the early stages, he was offered ways to get kosher certification even if they were open on Shabbat, as other businesses do, but he didn’t feel comfortable with that.

“It’s tricky,” he says, and describes the bakery as kosher friendly.

Back in my own kitchen, I follow Scheft’s advice to start with challah. He used to tell people that to make bread they need two tools – hands and an oven. Now he adds a digital scale to that list. I buy a scale and a sack of King Arthur flour, one of the brands he recommends, and find the rest of the ingredients and utensils in my cabinets. I hadn’t made challah bread since I was a kid, in my mother’s kitchen.

The book’s straightforward, step-by-step directions are accompanied by helpful illustrations. “If you read carefully, you’ll get it,” he writes.

I read, measure and then mix the dough, using a stand mixer bequeathed to me by a friend who made aliyah. I love the supple feel of the dough in my hands as I stretch and knead it. After setting it aside, peeking as it rises, I separate it into nine sections, to be braided into three loaves. I leave them under kitchen towels as they rise again, then brush them with egg, sprinkle them heavily with sesame seeds, and bake them, having adjusted the time per his instructions for a convection oven. While I’ve been in my kitchen for several hours, the time of actual involvement with the dough is limited (about 20 minutes; the rest of the time is waiting and watching).

One loaf that I left seedless comes out a beauty. I probably left the seeded ones in for a couple of minutes too long, but they too are lovely to look at, even if they’re a bit more than golden in spots. I let them cool before tasting one of the sesame loaves with my husband. We’re pleasantly surprised by the texture and taste. Altogether, it’s much better than expected and gone by morning.

“One of the great things about bread,” Scheft says, “is that even if it doesn’t turn out the best, family will enjoy it.” He adds, “Like so many other things in life, you can always do better tomorrow.”

For sure, I’ll try again, and then, I hope, move onto some of the other recipes.

I write this, sipping very good coffee, at a communal table at the uptown Breads, which opened earlier this year near Lincoln Center; next to me sit some Russian immigrants sharing breakfast sandwiches and pastries. Nearby are tourists from Sweden, a designer from Dubai attracted by the look of the place, and an Asian family cutting into a whole babka.

“The idea of this beautiful and nourishing loaf made by hand and bringing people together around a table or even gathered at a kitchen counter to rip off a piece and eat it with such great enjoyment – to me, this is true love,” Scheft writes in the book’s introduction. Those words, “TRUE LOVE,” appear on the T-shirts worn by Breads workers.

“When I branded my Israeli bakery, I had the idea not only about bread making. This is the atmosphere of my shops, between co-workers, toward customers. True love,” he says. With bread and with people, he tries to pay close attention to the way they do things. “You have to live what you’re talking about, by example more than by talking about it.” ✦