The first time Chris Brugler ever made challah, it was for Shabbat dinner at the private home where he had just been hired as a personal chef. The Beverly Hills family assumed that everyone knew how to make challah. Brugler, a blue-eyed Catholic boy from Pennsylvania who had discovered his vocation cooking in a home for retired nuns, did not. He went to the Internet and found pictures of the 8-foot-long loaves popular for big bar mitzvah celebrations. He tried to convince his employer to order bakery challah, just for the first dinner, but the boss insisted it was not Shabbat without a fresh-baked loaf. So Brugler called his mom, who called a Jewish friend, who passed on a family recipe, and the chef went to work making the recipe his own.
He had to learn to braid from the family’s daughters, and an early experiment in green challah for St. Patrick’s Day was not well received by his employer’s traditional grandmother. But as weeks went by, Brugler perfected his Friday night offering and introduced other more successful variations. On his days off, when friends of his employer hired him to cater, they regularly asked for his loaves of challah with white chocolate, mission fig or dried cranberry and walnuts. By the next Rosh Hashanah, Brugler found himself with so many orders for round challah that he couldn’t deliver them all. He arranged for buyers to meet him in a Beverly Hills parking lot, where they lined up like customers for something illegal, to get a sweet, round, fresh-baked loaf from the trunk of his car. This was the beginning of the Challah King of Beverly Hills.
It’s been about 2,000 years since bread from the earth and prayer took the place of Temple sacrifices. The ritual bread itself has not always looked like the shiny braided loaves Brugler makes. Until sometime in the 15th century, according to “The World of Jewish Cooking,” most Ashkenazim used weekday rectangular or round loaves for Shabbat. Then Jewish cooks, perhaps bored with the ordinary loaf, took to imitating a popular German braided bread, making it their own. Many Middle Eastern and Sephardic communities still use round, flat bread or plain, rectangular loaves. But the braided loaf is special. It’s easy to understand why it caught on. And why people love the playful variations that Brugler, like cooks for generations before him, tries out.
Brugler earned his professional cooking credentials training with the likes of Paul Bocuse and Joel Antunes. The life of a private chef was less complex, but eventually he began to itch for a little freedom from the home kitchen and left to start his own catering business. He loves working with clients, coming up with menus and the logistics of events large and small, but he has kept the challah business going, too. It gives him a space to have fun experimenting, and it’s a signature item, potentially a business that won’t have him in the kitchen all day long.
While Brugler’s challahs are available at Nate ’n Al of Beverly Hills, online at challahking.com (he has shipped online orders overnight to fans as far away as Texas), and he delivers locally, he knows that challah is best served soft and fresh. To grow his business, he imagines a Challah King challah mix sold all over the country, with an online video that teaches braiding in all its variations. In the Old World, practical housewives prepared a week’s worth of dough on Thursday, then, to save on fuel, baked everything before sundown Friday. History tells us this is the source of the Yiddish memory of houses filled with the smell of baking bread. Today, practical wives and husbands are usually out making a different kind of dough right up until sundown on Friday, and most buy their challah. Those who bake bread regularly may scoff, but for the rest of us, a helpful mix and video would be welcome. And for parents whose endless, unfulfilled resolutions to slow down include baking with a child on a special Shabbat, premeasured ingredients could make it so much more possible.
The rituals of Friday night dinner, like those of Passover, are familiar to even secular Jews. The challah, with its decorated plate, its beautiful cover, its fancy knife or the custom of no knives, is rich in traditions and meaning. There is the portion kept aside and burnt, not on an altar but in the oven, in recognition of the biblical commandment from which challah gets its name. (Bread in Hebrew is lechem, as we say in the blessing, lechem min ha’aretz.) Symbolically, we use two loaves in place of the two sacrifices, salt them like we salted meat or like we shed tears, or because we are wealthy and have salt and loaves to spare and time to rest at the table on the eve of our transition from material life to a taste of the world to come — challah with chocolate or figs or salt and olive oil is certainly the kind of food I imagine eating in the world to come.
And, because there is always room for something new and delicious within our traditions, here’s a recipe from Chris Brugler, the Challah King, just in case you happen to have leftovers. This recipe uses approximately half a loaf of challah.
GRILLED GOAT CHEESE SANDWICHES
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large Vidalia onions, sliced thin
Salt and pepper to taste
18 ounces goat cheese, softened
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 loaf mission fig challah, cut in
Place 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium heat. When butter begins to foam, add the sliced onions, salt and pepper to taste, and cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until onions are tender. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine the goat cheese, sauteed onions, basil and thyme, mixing until incorporated.
Assemble the sandwiches: Using 8 slices of bread, spread one-fourth of the goat cheese mixture on each of 4 slices; top with remaining 4 bread slices. Spread top of each sandwich with 1/2 tablespoon butter.
Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat. Place the sandwiches, buttered side down, on the heated skillet. Carefully butter the tops of the sandwiches, using 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining butter for each sandwich.
Cook until cheese is slightly melted and bottoms are golden brown, about 4 minutes. Then flip the sandwiches and continue to cook until cheese is thoroughly melted and other side is golden brown.
For appetizers, cut into bite-size pieces.
Makes 4 sandwiches, 8 appetizer servings.