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Forget the sticky little baking fingers covered in dough and clothes and surfaces smothered in flour dust.
For Allegra Benitah, better known to her 5,000 fans on Instagram as Challah Mummy, the joy of baking is all about letting youngsters “get hands on” in the kitchen, even if it means keeping wipes and mops at the ready.
The daughter of the broadcaster and journalist Vanessa Feltz has taken social media by storm over the past year with her contemporary twist on the humble challah, creating everything from helicopters, fire engines and tractors to hot air balloons, flower garlands and rainbow swirls out of the otherwise familiar bread.
Now the 33-year-old is encouraging others to dust off their rolling pins and get involved with Jewish Care’s Great Jewish Bake Day, which takes place next Wednesday, with funds raised going towards supporting older members of the community.
As Allegra advises, the annual fundraiser is more about bringing generations together and taking part, rather than producing showstopping cakes.
“I’m all about the having a go and don’t really think about the finished product at all,” says Allegra, of making her challah on a weekly basis alongside her children, Ezekiel, five, and Neroli, three.
“I’d much rather they get involved, get excited and their clothes and the house get filthy, but that in return they feel accomplishment and pride. When you can take something you’ve made and share it with the people you love, that’s an even better level of achievement.”
Allegra speaks with such passion it’s easy to assume this has always been
her life’s path. In fact, her Challah Mummy alter-ego only came about 18 months ago by what she describes as “a complete accident”.
Before having her son, Allegra was a Cambridge graduate and tax lawyer
working for a Magic Circle firm, but after five years made a decision.
“I was torn between the mother I needed to be and the lawyer I needed to be for my firm,” she says. “I didn’t see how I could do both to the best of my abilities, so I decided to walk away from my career in the law and become a full-time mummy.”
At home one rainy afternoon, she was trying to find an activity to keep the children busy when she decided to pull out a challah recipe and make a rainbow challah, instead of a regular one. “That’s how it started,” she recalls.
“The following Shabbat they asked what we were making this week and so we started making these fun and unusual things out of challah.”
With the help of her tech-savvy sister, Saskia, colourful photographs of Allegra’s
creations were uploaded to her own Instagram page, which today has more than 5,500 followers.
“It’s completely blossomed and turned into this whole new career for me, which I never anticipated, planned or expected – and I’m absolutely thrilled to have
found,” she adds.
As for the inspiration behind her creations – which includes her sunflower pesto
“tear and share” challah – Allegra, who is married to Dan, cites her children’s imaginative suggestions, as well as the seasonal fruit and vegetables she grows at home and uses in her recipes.
“We live in Hendon and have this tiny concrete patch for a garden, so we grow in pots and hanging containers.
We have more than 30 varieties of fruit and vegetables in the garden, which is amazing, and teaches the little ones so much about nature and growing your own.”
Allegra says her mum was a little miffed with her new choice of career, but
quickly became a fan. “She was so used to my daughter, the Cambridge graduate, the tax lawyer – and now you’re making challahs shaped like a turtle,” she laughs.
“But then she saw how my son can make challah by himself aged five and how as a family we are all benefiting from this, so now she’s very proud of me – and, of course, loves eating my challah!”
Jewish Care’s Great Jewish Bake Day is on Wednesday, 3 July. Email email@example.com, or call 020 8922 2834.
Challah Mummy’s roasted balsamic purple veg challah
For the challah dough:
1 – 1.5 kilos of plain flour (approx.)
1½ cups of lukewarm water
1 portion of fresh yeast (approx. 40g, otherwise 1 tablespoon of active dried yeast)
4-6 tablespoons of caster sugar (plus one more teaspoon to mix in with the yeast)
2 eggs (plus one more egg yolk for the egg wash)
1 tablespoon of salt
¼ cup of sunflower oil
For the roasted vegetables:
4 shallots (chopped)
3 red onions (chopped)
2 cloves of garlic (peeled and chopped)
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Salt and pepper to season
Dissolve the teaspoon of sugar and yeast into the water. Once bubbles start to appear, pour in about a third of the flour, followed by the two eggs, the rest of the sugar, the salt and the oil. Combine the mixture with your hands, adding flour little by little, until you get a big ball of dough.
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, tip your dough out and knead for 5-10 minutes, adding a bit of flour if it gets too sticky. Drizzle some sunflower oil around the bowl, place the ball of kneaded dough back inside and cover with cling film. Leave the dough to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, mix the vinegar and olive oil together and pour over the chopped vegetables before seasoning and roasting them in the oven for 40 minutes.
Once the dough has risen, roll it out into a thin, flat rectangle shape using a rolling pin and cut it into three long strands. Place the vegetables in a long line down the centre of each of the strands and seal the dough up around the vegetables.
Braid the three strands together and then curl the braid around on itself like a snail shell. Cover with cling film and let it rise again for 30 minutes. Egg wash the challah with a pastry brush before baking for 25 to 30 minutes at 180°C at the bottom of the oven.