The rise and rise of the Jewish loaf

Ever since biblical times, bread has played a crucial role in our history

By Bernard Josephs, April 15, 2010

It takes the end of Pesach to remind us just how important bread is in the Jewish diet.

With the last box of matzah resigned to tooth grinding memory, normality is at last returned to our digestive tracts. Let's face it, although matzah has its charms there is nothing like bread to bring on that feeling of nourishment and wellbeing.

Artisan bakers have always played an indispensable role in Jewish life. Take a look at any Jewish area in London. You will find a cornucopia of bakeries where the dough is kneaded day and night.

In biblical times, according to historians, Jerusalem's bakers' quarter saw loaves being prepared in tiers of stone-built ovens.

Jews and Romans would form unruly queues waiting for a loaf or two - a custom that survives to this day as hungry patrons struggle to be first in line for Sunday morning bagels.

Bread played a big part in complex social rituals in ancient Israel. There were rules about sharing it with friends, with strangers and even enemies, and the first to break bread was likely to be the head of the household.

Indeed there are some 600 references to bread in the Old and New Testaments, and at least 80 in the Koran.

Today, of course, Jewish baking has come on in leaps and bounds, with high-tech bakeries replacing the much loved traditional ones.

Some items, particularly bagels, or beigels as we East Enders call them, have jumped the cultural divide and are to be found in every supermarket.

Not that our claim to have invented the boiled and baked bun with a hole can be doubted. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, there are references that go back as far as 1610.

A 17th-century document shows that bagels were given as a gift to Jewish women in childbirth. However, exactly how they were made is lost in history.

The modern bagel was brought to New York in the 1880s where it swiftly became a flourishing part of both the Jewish and American diet.

While the bagel is largely dismissed in Israel as "American, not Jewish", there is no sign of it losing its popularity in the larger Jewish world, along with its even tastier cousin, the onion platzel.

Toasting should also be avoided. As one maven told me, "toasting is a sorry attempt to compensate for a sub standard bagel".

Perhaps the most aristocratic and authentic item on the shelves of kosher bakers is the challah. Sweet, golden and eggy, there is nothing quite like it.

According to tradition, one challah is just not enough. Holiday and Shabbat meals must start with two complete loaves.

This commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites were in the wilderness. As manna did not fall on the Sabbath or on chagim, a double portion would fall the day before.

The Bible does not specify the recipe for challah but its role as sustenance for the Cohanim is discussed in the Talmud, and the word challah itself refers to a portion of the dough set aside for the priestly sect.

In these health-conscious times the recipe includes fewer eggs, less sugar and sometimes even wholemeal flour is used.

For a sweeter flavour, honey or molasses and raisins can be added to the mix.

In the Middle East, however, there is no tradition of using a braided loaf for Shabbat. Instead, pitta bread is used to represent the loaves in the Temple. They are arranged in two layers, with the two pittas on the upper layer used for the blessings.

Make your own bagels

Makes a dozen

● 450g white bead flour
● 1 ½ teaspoons salt
● 1 sachet dried yeast
● 3 eggs
● 1 teaspoon of clear honey
● 2 teaspoons of sunflower oil
● 200 ml tepid water

● Put the flour into a large mixing bowl, stir in salt and yeast and make a well in the centre of the mixture.
● Lightly whisk two of the eggs with the honey and oil and add to the flour mixture.
● Add the water to create a soft dough.
● Knead for 10 minutes on a floured surface, then place the dough into a large greased bowl.
● Cover with a tea cloth and leave for 40 minutes in a warm place.
● Once dough has doubled in size, turn onto a floured work surface and knead it lightly, then divide into 12 equal pieces.
● Form each into “sausages,” shape them into rings, dampen the ends with a little water and pinch ends together to seal.
● Place bagels on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cover with oiled cling film and leave to rise for about 20 minutes in a warm place.
● Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop the bagels in the water one at a time.
● Poach for 20 minutes while you pre-heat the oven to 200°c.
● Lift out bagels with a draining spoon and place them on the baking sheet. Brush each bagel with egg to glaze and bake for 14 to 15 minutes.

Last updated: 3:25pm, November 2 2010