There’s challah – and then there’s something that turns tradition on its head, as a new cookbook sets out to prove.

Twists on the classic Jewish bread, like a pesto and goat cheese-stuffed challah or a banana bread chocolate chip challah may sound like the stuff of dreams, but have become reality thanks to Modern Jewish Baker by Shannon Sarna, editor of Jewish food blog The Nosher.

Here Shannon shares why challah inspired her to write a cookery book, why she loves experimenting with flavours and the best recipe for beginners to get baking with…

When did you first make non-traditional, or what you call “mixed-up” Jewish bread? Did it come out the way you thought it would?

The very first time I tried a mash-up was around 10 years ago, and it was a rosemary garlic challah — a little infusion of Italian-Mediterranean flavours into the classic Jewish bread. From there, I tried sundried tomato, Kalamata olive and “everything” flavour, but rosemary garlic was always my favorite, and other people’s too. I’ve tried lots of flavours – including a spaghetti and meatballs-stuffed challah, which didn’t quite turn out the way I envisioned – but the first few Mediterranean-inspired flavours I experimented with were quite successful.

Shannon Sarna

Shannon Sarna

Challah is an incredibly forgiving bread that takes well to adding various sweet and savoury flavors, which is really the inspiration for the entire book: how to take a basic dough and add what appeals to you.

How long did it take you to perfect the techniques and recipes in your book?

It depends on the recipe. I started baking with challah, and that’s the first recipe I really experimented with, so many of the challah recipes have been years and years in the making. Other recipes, such as the bagels, were newer additions. But it still took me trial after trial to get it right.

What does “modern” mean in the context of the book’s title?

When you look at my recipes and understand my background, they and I are far from traditional. Each recipe is rooted in tradition in some way, and each chapter explains the Jewish significance or origin of the recipe.

I think Jewish food, as we know, is having a moment – thoughtfully crafted deli sandwiches, gooey babka and Israeli imports like shakshuka, zaatar and labne now have mass appeal well beyond Jews, and so of course I hope Jews, and non-Jews, will enjoy both the classic and not so classic Jewish recipes.

As a child of an interfaith marriage, I always have an eye towards providing avenues for meaningful engagement that are non-judgmental and positive. If someone has an interest or inclination towards exploring their Jewishness, and babka or bagel baking can be their “gateway drug”, then I am thrilled.

Shannon Sarna has many takes on the Babka

Shannon Sarna has many takes on the Babka

Do any recipes in the book stand out as especially easy for a total beginner to try?

I think pita bread is even easier than challah. It has a shorter rise time and bakes up in literally three minutes or less. It’s also
incredibly good – you can find a good challah in many places, but it’s pretty rare to find really good, fluffy pita bread.

What’s your favourite recipe in the book?

The spicy Pizza Rugelach. That’s partly because it was one of those rare recipes that came out exactly the way I envisioned it in my head and partially because I feel like it embodies my character: a spicy, delicious half-Italian, half-Jewish treat.

Cinnamon Raisin Challah

Cinnamon raisin challah is a year-round classic, but it’s especially perfect for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, when it is practically a mitzvah to serve up sweet foods and breads to usher in a sweet year. If raisins aren’t your thing, swap them for dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips. This recipe also makes wonderful French toast or bread pudding –
that is, if you have leftovers.

Makes 2 medium loaves:

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 1  Tablespoons dry active yeast p + 2 tablespoons + Teaspoon sugar
  • 1 c  ups lukewarm water
  • 4 oz 5 cups unbleached bread flour
    1  teaspoons table salt
  •  Cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1  teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup raisins

For the topping:

  • 2 egg yolks (or 1 whole egg)
  • 1 teaspoon water
  •  Cup spiced sugar (see right)
  •  Teaspoon coarse sea salt
Cinnamon raisin challah

Cinnamon raisin challah

For the dough: In a small bowl, place the yeast, ½ teaspoon sugar, and lukewarm water. Stir gently to mix. Allow to sit for five to 10 minutes, until it becomes foamy on top.

In a large bowl or stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix together 1 ½ cups of the flour, salt, and ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar. Add the water- yeast mixture, oil, vanilla, and cinnamon to the flour. Mix thoroughly.

Add another cup of the flour and two eggs and mix until smooth. Switch to the dough hook attachment if you are using a stand mixer.

Add another 1 ½ to 2 cups of the flour and mix thoroughly. Remove from the bowl and place on a floured surface. Knead the remaining ½ cup flour into the dough, continuing to knead for about five minutes. Add the raisins and incorporate them into the kneaded dough.

Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a damp towel. Allow to rise for at least three hours.

Divide the dough in two and plait the challahs into desired shape.

Place plaited challah on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Allow the challah to rise another 45 to 60 minutes, or until you can see the size has grown and the challah seems light. This step is very important to ensure a light and fluffy challah. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C or 170ºC fan) while the dough rises.

book

For the topping: In a small bowl beat 2 egg yolks with 1 teaspoon water. Brush the egg wash liberally over the challah. Sprinkle with Spiced Sugar and coarse sea salt.

Bake for 24 to 26 minutes, or until the colour is golden.

Spiced Sugar

Cinnamon sugar is an easy enough ingredient to throw together. But by adding some extra spices and salt, you can bring a delicious sweet and salty complexity to sweet challah, rugelach, and hamantaschen.

Makes about 1/2 cup.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  •  1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4  easpoon sea salt

Add all ingredients to a small bowl and combine. Store in an airtight container for up to two or three months.