For the past 50 years, I have given cooking classes that include recipes for contemporary and traditional dishes, as well as menus for all the Jewish holidays. It is always very rewarding when I receive calls from students telling me that they loved the class and prepared all the dishes. But my most recent cooking class is one of the most memorable.
It happened when a close friend, Carolyn Lieber, asked me if I would give her grandson, Evan, a lesson on how to make challah.
"It would be a gift for his bar mitzvah," she explained. "He loves to cook and has ambitions of becoming a chef."
"Yes," I said, "lets make a date to get together for a session on how to bake a challah after his bar mitzvah."
But, Carolyn asked if I could teach him to make challah next week, because he wanted to bake and serve the challah for the pre-bar mitzvah Friday evening family dinner. We set the date for the next Thursday. I was surprised that he wanted to take the time, two days before his bar mitzvah, to learn how to bake challah.
"Wasn't he nervous and still writing his speech?" I asked.
"He would find the time," she replied, "because that was the one thing that he really wanted to do."
On the morning of the baking lesson, Evan arrived at our home with his younger brother, Eric; his mother, Sally; and grandmother, Carolyn. We spent the morning measuring, mixing and kneading the dough, letting it rise, punching it down and then shaping it into a large braided challah.
We talked about the varieties of shapes, sizes and the fillings that could be added to a challah recipe. Evan was excited to learn, and I found him to be a good student.
While the challah was in the oven, I showed him how to make pizza. This was really a hit with Evan, as well as his brother. He helped roll out the dough, and they both selected toppings of their choice. We ate the pizza while the challah was baking, and when it was finished and cooled, Evan took it home to share with his family for their Shabbat dinner.
The baking lesson gave us an idea for the perfect bar mitzvah present to give Evan. So the next day, we went shopping and bought him all the necessary utensils to bake bread as well as pizza. They included several cookbooks, measuring cups and spoons, a wooden pastry board, rolling pin and pizza stone, as well as a gift for future cooking classes.
Saturday morning when we arrived at the synagogue for the bar mitzvah, Evan and his brother greeted us with big hugs and kisses. We were not just his grandmother's friends, now, we were part of his extended family.
After the bar mitzvah services, lunch was served at the synagogue. Evan had planned the menu with the caterers. For the centerpiece, each table had a life-size bust made of metal and wood of various famous chefs -- such as Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. He is really serious about what he wants to do when he grows up, and during his bar mitzvah speech, he thanked everyone that helped him prepare for his special day, plus a special thank you to his cooking teacher.
Remember, the challah plays an important role in the Sabbath, festivals and holiday meals. For many years, baking challah was a traditional responsibility in every Jewish home, but, today, it's usually the responsibility of the local bakery.
Baking a challah is not as difficult as it seems, if you have a mixer and follow my recipe. The satisfaction of baking these golden loaves is a great experience that should not be missed and a wonderful treat for the family.
Judy's Classic Challah
A little 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads gives color, 2 tablespoons of honey adds just a little extra sweetness and 1/3 cup of raisins may be for a little something extra.
2 packages active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (110 F-115 F)
1/4 cup, plus a pinch, of sugar
1/4 cup olive oil, safflower or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons salt
8 cups flour
3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 egg, lightly beaten for topping
2 tablespoons sesame seeds or poppy seeds
Dissolve the yeast in half a cup of the warm water, with a pinch of sugar.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the remaining 1 1/2 cups of warm water, 1/4 cup sugar, oil, salt and the yeast mixture. Add three of the eggs and blend well. Add the flour, one cup at a time, blending after each addition, until the dough is thick enough to work by hand, about 4 to 5 cups.
Spoon the dough out on a floured board and knead for five to 10 minutes, adding additional flour to make a smooth and elastic dough. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, and oil the top of the dough.
Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch the dough down, turn it over, cover and let it rise 30 minutes longer.
Divide the dough into three parts. Divide each part into three parts. This will make three individual challahs. Form each part into a long rope. Pinch together one end of each of the three ropes and braid the ropes, pinching the other ends together.
Place the challah on baking sheets or bread pans lightly greased and generously sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until double, about one hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Brush with the lightly beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on racks. Makes three small or one large Challah
Shaping for Rosh Hashanah (round challah): Using one-third of the dough, form into a large rope, about 12-15 inches long and several inches thick. Starting in the center, begin making concentric circles of the rope until a large snail-like shape is created.
Seal ends. Place the round challah in a large cake pan, oiled and generously sprinkled with cornmeal. Bake the same as for the Classic Challah and sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds.
When you order a pizza in Italy, it usually means you are going to get a pizza with tomato sauce and cheese; this is called Pizza-Margherita. My personal preference is lots and lots of cheese, melted to perfection when it arrives on the plate in front of me. Timing is the secret to perfect pizza.
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 F)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Classic marinara tomato sauce (recipe follows)
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in a half cup of the water and set aside until foamy.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining three-quarters cup water, the olive oil and yeast mixture. Stir in the flour and salt and stir in one cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball.
Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, oil its top, cover and set in a warm place to rise for about one hour, until doubled in bulk.
Punch down the dough and break off golf ball-size pieces to make 8- to 10-inch or individual pizzas.
Knead each piece of dough on a floured board for one minute, working in additional flour to make it smooth and no longer sticky.
Roll it out into a thin circle. Dust a round pizza baking pan with cornmeal and place the rolled out dough on top.
Spoon a thin coating of the sauce onto the pizza, spreading it with the back of a spoon to within one inch of the edge.
Add any other toppings you desire. Sprinkle generously with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Drizzle with two tablespoons olive oil and bake on the lowest rack of the oven for 10 minutes, or until the crust is crisp and brown and the cheese is hot and bubbling. Serve immediately.
Classic Marinara Sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 onions, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic, onions, red pepper, carrots and celery and saute until the onions are transparent.
Add the tomatoes with the liquid, red wine, oregano, basil, parsley and sugar.
Bring to a boil and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally until thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
Judy Zeidler (members.aol.com/jzkitchen) is the author of "The Gourmet Jewish Cook" (Cookbooks, 1988) and "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (Morrow, 1999).