My grandfather grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with his mother, father, brother and grandmother. To this day, he still talks about the challah that his grandmother used to make—big braided loaves that she kept warm on the apartment’s radiators, filling the whole house with their smell, and the tiny individual rolls she snuck him and his brother after school. He remembers the challah so vividly that I can taste and smell it whenever he talks about it, but sadly, aside from an armload of every-day phrases and terms of endearment, he doesn’t remember how to speak the language.
When I discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories in college I wished more than anything that I could read them in their original Yiddish. Saul Bellow translated “Gimpel The Fool” in 1953, introducing Singer to an American, non-Yiddish-speaking audience for the first time. As good as I’m sure the translation is, there is certainly a feeling that much is lost between languages. Whenever I ask my Papa or Uncle Peter to translate a Yiddish word for me it takes them full minutes to explain—-there is always a connection to another word that is reminiscent of something else entirely, which relates to the story of such-and-such—-it’s beautiful to listen to. If one word takes that long to explain, though, I can only imagine what an impossible task translating an entire collection of Yiddish stories without losing any meaning along the way would be.
Regardless of what is lost in translation, I never tire of Singer’s writings. Food—-specifically bread—-is everywhere in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories. In “Abba and his Seven Sons” Pesha bakes challah for lunch, “grasp[ing] the first loaf and carry[ing] it, hot from the oven, blowing on it all the while and tossing it from hand to hand, to show it to Abba, hold it up, front and back, till he nodded approval.” In “The Unseen” a man eats his Rosh Hashanah meal in total darkness—“blindly dunk[ing] a slice of bread in honey, and tast[ing] an apple, a carrot, the head of a carp, and offer[ing] a blessing for the first fruit, over a pomegranate.”
It was Gimpel the bread-baker who first drew me to Singer, and Gimpel whom I thought of all day last week while I made round challahs for Rosh Hashanah. I was lucky enough to be home with my family for the holiday and my sisters and I spent all day kneading and punching and braiding dough.
Challah, like most bread, can be tricky, and I’ve never been fully satisfied with any recipe I’ve used until last week. I tried different techniques with each loaf, letting it rise in the sun, letting it rise in the oven, I tried using honey instead of sugar, raised the amount of eggs and the lowered the amount of yeast, and they were good, but not perfect. Finally the next day, using the last of the dough, we made a perfect loaf. The trick, as I’ve learned over and over again with raised doughs, is giving it a cold, slow rise after its first two warm rises. If you’re short on time, two warm and fast rises will always do just fine, but a cold, slow rise gives the bread a whole new depth of flavor and a texture that’s somehow both airy and chewy at once, just like a good challah should be.
“Gimpel The Fool” Challah Bread
Makes 2 loaves
Adapted from Joan Nathan
1 ½ Tablespoons (11 g, 1 ½ packages) active dry yeast
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 ¾ cups warm water
½ cup neutral oil (I used vegetable), plus more for bowl-greasing
4 large eggs (you will need one more for the egg wash–5 total)
½ cup sugar
1 Tablespoon fine salt
8 cups bread flour (all-purpose will be fine too)
1 large egg for egg-wash
coarse sea-salt for sprinkling
In a the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, dissolve the yeast and 1 Tablespoon of sugar in lukewarm water. With the mixer running, whisk the neutral oil into the yeast/sugar/water mixture. Add the 4 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then whisk in the remaining ½ cup of sugar and Tablespoon of salt. Remove whisk attachment and switch to the dough hook. With the mixer running, slowly add your flour, about a cup at a time, and mix until dough just comes together. At this point, turn your dough out onto a floured surface and knead it by hand until it is smooth and elastic—-about 3 to 5 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, and let it rise for 1 hour in a warm place. After an hour it should be about doubled in size. Punch the dough down, cover it again and let it rise for another 30-45 minutes. After the second 30-45 minute rise, place dough in a greased bowl, cover and refrigerate it for 12-24 hours.
Turn the dough out and separate it into 2 even pieces, then separate those 2 loaves into pieces for braiding. Rather than clumsily try to explain how to braid I’m going to give you a link to this very helpful video which gives you a few different options. Unfortunately, the challah pictured was not my best braiding attempt, but it still tasted great, so don’t stress if this part doesn’t come out perfectly.
Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl and brush it onto your braided challah. If you’re making straight loaves, place them on two baking sheets lined with greased parchment paper. If you’re making round loaves (traditional for Rosh Hashanah), place them in two oven-safe bowls, or round cake pans lined with greased parchment paper. Cover and let them rise in a warm place for 1 more hour (I swear, that’s the last one!) After an hour, brush doughs again with egg-wash and sprinkle with sea salt. Pre-heat your oven to 375 and bake for 40 minutes-1 hour (this time will vary depending on whether you make a round or straight loaf. (If you have a thermometer, the internal temperate of the bread should be 190 degrees F). Turn finished bread out onto a cooling rack. Eat with everything for every meal.