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From legal eagle to Challah Mummy

Why would a Cambridge graduate and high-flying tax lawyer give it all up to braid challah?

    Benitah with Mum, Feltz, and Benitah's children Zeke (left) and Neroli
    Benitah with Mum, Feltz, and Benitah's children Zeke (left) and Neroli

    Allegra Benitah, daughter of radio and television personality, Vanessa Feltz, did just that.

    Following in her mother’s footsteps, Benitah, 32, attended Haberdasher’s Askes School for Girls and then Cambridge University, but opted for a legal career rather than follow her mother into journalism. She qualified at law firm Clifford Chance, and was fully focused on her career, when she met her French husband Dan Benitah at a Purim party in Rome in 2012. Luckily, Allegra is fluent in French. Their son, Zeke, was born in 2014.

    “After becoming a mother, I didn’t think I could be the lawyer I needed to be as well as the mother I wanted to be to my son. I couldn’t reconcile the two so decided to take a career pause” explains Benitah, who is now also mother to two year old Neroli.

    Used to working long hours, with little or no time spent in the kitchen before becoming a mother, the 32-year-old would never have imagined ending up elbow deep in dough. But life changed after she attended a challah making workshop at her son’s Hendon school.

    “I returned with homemade challah, which my husband and son loved. I hadn’t grown up with a tradition of making challah as — although my mother is an excellent traditional Jewish cook — we bought our challah. It wasn’t the norm to bake it yourself. For my husband, growing up in France, everyone baked their own. It was unusual to buy it, so he was delighted.”

    Designing with challah was inspired by her children. “One Friday when we’d painted every picture and read every book, I said ‘why don’t we bake a rainbow challah?’ I dug out the recipe from the challah bake, and we got food colouring all over the kitchen and ourselves but had the best time.”

    The next week they baked a red London bus challah and each Friday made a new doughy design. “The children loved getting their hands in it.”

    The creations went down so well, that (last September) her more technically savvy sister, Saskia Kurer, helped her share them on Instagram as Challah Mummy — where she has more than 1500 followers.

    Her challah braiding workshops started after she was asked to lead one at her children’s school. More than 60 people attended.

    “It was good, clean family fun, something that’s quite hard to find in 2018 and everyone had a nice design to take home.” She now teaches smaller groups from home. She supplies guests with risen dough that she makes in advance and then teaches them how to make braided designs. Toppings and fillings are laid out on the table and may include strawberries, chocolate spread, chocolate drops and multi-coloured sprinkles with the more grown-up sundried tomatoes, olives and dried herbs for adult braiders.

    She has tweaked her recipe from the original. “The challah my husband grew up eating in Paris is lighter and a bit more savoury, so I tested a lot of American recipes before finding one he and the children liked. I use plain flour instead of bread flour as it gives a lighter more ‘cakey’ finish. I also needed a recipe that could withstand food colouring, as that can stop the dough rising properly.”

    Designs are inspired by a variety of influences. “If I’m teaching, I need it to be do-able within a time frame, to look pretty and taste good. There’s always braiding — so you can recognise that it’s challah. If my son is involved the loaf tends to be transport related. He wants me to design a digger next!”

    To keep the colour of her designs, she says she uses egg white instead of whole egg to glaze, having discovered that it will not darken the coloured dough like whole egg can.

    “I also add food colouring to the egg white to deepen the colour — it’s a shame to go through all the stages of colouring and not see the end result.”

    Was her career-driven mother disappointed by her daughter, the lawyer, choosing instead to plait bread?

    “Not at all! She has been so supportive of my decision to take time out of the law to be with my children. She’s delighted that we’ve found this brilliant way to spend time together. She calls herself the Challah Mummy’s mummy!

    “When we were growing up, she always arranged her schedule to ensure she was there for us at the end of the day with a hot, home-cooked meal. We were always her priority and even though she was busy we always sat down together to talk about our days over dinner.”

    Does she plan on returning to law? “Maybe, but for now I’m just enjoying being with my children, baking challah and seeing where that leads.”

    challahmummy.wordpress.com/home/

    Instagram: @challahmummy

     

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