She may be the only Jew in the village. But that hasn’t stopped Elizabeth Weisberg creating a voracious appetite for challah, bagels and hamantaschen in the very English rural hinterland of East Sussex.
Many merely buy the ethnic goodies made at the Lighthouse Bakery from local food shops in Lewes, Winchelsea and Rye, but others shlep to the tucked-away hamlet of Bodiam to bake the bread themselves. Hundreds of gentiles, as well as Jews, it seems, have been driven to discover why you need to boil a bagel to get the authentic shine and chew, and how to plait a Shabbat loaf.
Turning up to Elizabeth’s class on Jewish baking, I find a typical assortment of students. They include Anthony, a publisher who bakes all the bread for his family, and whose children gave him the class for Father’s Day. “I’m not Jewish, but I’ve never got over the aroma emanating from Perlmutters bakery in New Southgate, where I used to visit my grandparents as a child,” he explains.
Ruth, who works in marketing at Boots’ head office in Nottingham, is another non-Jew who has had close encounters with our ethnic breads. “I grew up in Bury, and there were lots of Jewish girls at my school; I knew about all those north Manchester bakeries,” she explains. “I’m here because my cakes are quite good, but my bread is only so-so.”
Paula is typical of the Jewish students who come — from as far afield as Liverpool and Rochdale, as well as Brighton, an hour away — to reconnect with their roots. “As a New Yorker whose mother used to bake her own rye, I love good baking and have missed proper American bagels the whole 30 years I’ve lived in England,” she sighs.
We get wit, intellect and much informed conjecture from Elizabeth, the art-historian daughter of a Boston rabbi and a Holocaust survivor who took up baking as a profession nine years ago. “The nice thing about Jewish holidays is, it’s either: ‘Oy, we were persecuted — let’s eat!’ or ‘Oy, we triumphed — let’s eat again!’” she laughs.
Bagels probably got their hole so they could be threaded on a long pole and brought to the workers, she thinks. Challah may seem indistinguishable from brioche dough, but it was created without the milk in order to be parev. Bialys are known only where immigrants from Bialystock landed in the diaspora. With its flat shape and seeded filling, it is a close relation to an onion platzel.
While bialys are relatively simple to whip up, bagels require a surprising number of arcane ingredients, including sourdough starter (pupils get some to take home) and the malt syrup which imparts quintessential sweetness. Challah needs no starter, but lots of eggs and a fair bit of sugar… it’s amazing how fast the dough rises.
Then, to a background of klezmer music which seems delightfully appropriate to our Friday afternoon activities, we plait our challahs. This is the hard bit, requiring us to memorise a complicated sequence for weaving four separate rolls of rich dough. While it bakes, along with loaves of much easier New York rye studded with caraway, Rachel shows us how to form hamantaschen pastry into triangles and fill them with an unctuously rich prune butter — though I am shocked by the absence of poppy seeds.
There are plenty of seeds on my very own challah, and the joy of seeing it merge from the oven a shiny, brown plaited loaf which would not look out of place on Grodzinski’s shelves is exceeded only by eating it for Shabbat breakfast. No wonder Weisberg includes it on her regular, non-ethnic Introduction to Baking course. “People call the next day and said they had to pull over and eat there and then on the side of the road, because the aroma was driving them crazy!”