You know those recipes we hold near and dear to our hearts because they really are the greatest of all time? Well, our Greatest Recipe of All Time series is where we wax poetic about them. Today, senior editor Julia Kramer shares her mom’s recipe for challah.
Every time I got an email from one of Bonappetit.com’s indefatigable editors asking for my family’s “Greatest Recipe of All Time,” I felt like a failure. I didn’t have one.
Then I invited Rick Martinez, one of our senior food editors, over for Shabbat dinner. I braised a leg of lamb for hours, and a friend showed up with a dead-on reproduction of the upside-down pear cake. And yet: The only thing Rick has talked to me about since is the challah. (For reference, this dinner was almost a year ago.) “We have to do this as a GROAT,” Rick insisted, using the incredibly appealing intra-office shorthand for this column.
This? My mom’s challah? Not just a great recipe—as I had long suspected it to be—but the greatest? I’m not aw’shucks-ing you, here. How come I hadn’t realized I had this in the bank the whole time?
I think many people—and many of them people who write about food—experience what they eat filtered through the memories of some ideal version of that dish that they were served as a child or ate on a vacation or were spoon-fed by Mario Batali. This is Proust and the madeleines; Anton Ego and the ratatouille. This is not me.
I don’t have, imprinted on my palate, a standard against which to judge all future versions of any particular food. If anything, my life as an eater has been one in which I’m constantly reminded how little I know for sure. I spent almost two decades believing what my parents told me: that the only ingredient one added to Kraft macaroni and cheese was skim milk. Just imagine what it was like to be 18 years old and taste this magical product with butter. Sure, I ate stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner every year of my life, but when I tasted a version of it two years ago in the Bon AppétitTest Kitchen, I was literally rendered speechless by its deliciousness.
As someone whose job is to eat at hundreds of new restaurants and taste dozens of original recipes every year, I am constantly being opened up to possibilities of what ingredients can become. (This is what made me so fascinated with the cooking at Lord Stanley, one of this year’s Hot 10 restaurants.) In this frame of mind, what even is a “Greatest Recipe of All Time”? How can you say something is the best when you haven’t had every other version of that thing, when you don’t even know what other version might be out there? They say the past is never past, but if you’ve somehow developed an allergy to nostalgia, isn’t it kind of?
So alas, I sent Rick the recipe for my mom’s challah, which yields two braided loaves, however because of various personality traits of my mom, she makes them in quantities of—I kid you not—a dozen, freezing the extras. Her challah is not as airy and brioche-like as most “good” challahs I’ve encountered in my life, and that’s why I love it. It has a density, such that when you pull it, it comes apart in twists and hunks—not feathery threads. I have a feeling that part of what gives it this texture is the inclusion of one very un-foodie ingredient: shortening.
A loaf of this challah was on the table every Shabbat dinner of the first 18 years of my life. We sang the blessing over the bread that I’d learned in pre-school, my sister lifted up the cloth covering the challah, tore off the end from the braided loaf, then took a bit of that hunk for herself and passed the rest around the table, so that we all shared in that one giant piece. (Challah, I’m convinced, tastes much better torn than sliced.) Then my sister would ask everyone to go around the table and share the best part of their week, and we would take more challah as we listened. My sister and I had a rule that there were only two unacceptable answers: (1) You couldn’t say “The best part of my week is that it’s over.” And (2) You couldn’t say, “The best part of my week is this dinner.”
It’s this second rule that I’ve recently begun to have trouble with. Because when I find time to recreate this tradition—inviting friends over for Shabbat and passing around a loaf of still-warm, deep-golden challah and listening, one by one, to the highlight’s of each person’s week—by the time it’s my turn, I can think of only one honest answer. That moment, right then, before the meal begins, with the table already covered in challah crumbs: That’s the best part of my week. I suppose I’ve got some nostalgia in me after all.