A Baker’s Dozen: For the Love of Challah

by Dianne Boate

It was for love of a Jewish man that I came to a point of receiving 50 pounds of all-purpose flour at my doorstep, converting it in  one weekend  into delicious round loaves of Egg Twist Bread, challah, for the annual Art Fair in Beverly Glen Canyon, located in West Los Angeles, where I hoped to make a small fortune in two days.  What a cartoon feature it would make, with me shoveling the little white glass bowls filled with dough into an oven that had one rack inside and an oven door that had to be closed by a propped broom handle, the whole house steadily increasing its inventory of little round golden loaves, like the fairy tale porridge that multiplied and filled a small village. 

Baking and movies met at the Fair when a whole motorcycle group arrived whose names were Dean Stockwell, his brother, Guy, Sandy McPeak, Wally Berman, Dennis Hopper, and Steve McQueen, who bought my bread.  It was a heart stopping moment looking into those blue eyes!  (Wally Berman was my neighbor, a photographer whose work hung in the LA County Museum of Art.  His whole house fell down the mountainside one rainy night, minutes after the family escaped.  Many years later, Dennis Hopper told me Wally was his best friend who predicted death at 50, and it did happen to the  day , at 50, on a motorcycle.)


Today challah is in my baking life again as new research has yielded surprises about braid shapes.  It is also thanks to Rose Levy Beranbaum, in two of her baking books, The Cake Bible, and The Bread Bible, showing challah as part of a large Brioche family of soft yeast breads that include Savarin  (baked in a mold then laced with a sweet citrus rum syrup, close to a  Baba au Rhum ), and  Pannetone  (the Italian holiday bread).  Rose laid out the connections.  My old favorite,  Coulibiac —a Russian dish of meats, cheese, and vegetables in a rich brioche savory crust—fits in here, too.



Challah is a traditional celebratory bread for the Jewish Shabbat on Friday night.  Various braid designs show symbolism of peace, unity, justice, love, and more.  As a new batch of challah is rising now, even unbaked the smell is sublime.  Trying new shapes today—the possibilities are endless (like the binary system of 1 and 0, which helped me reason out knit and purl stitches as 1 and 0, explaining why we have a whole universe of knitting patterns).  A sense of well-being pervades the house as the bread bakes, and as for putting a warm, buttered piece in your mouth?  Ahhhhh!  Stabbed in the senses again.


Using challah: Adventuresome cooks use it or brioche for dishes such as French Toast and Bread Pudding.  Frankly, my baked loaves have never made it that far.  Challah makes a great present, too.



You can find Rose’s challah here.  [Baker Alert: Rose’s newest book, The Baking Bible is coming this fall.]

A story about Savarin: I enrolled in a class at City College of San Francisco, “History of Foods and Wines of France.”  One night we were shown a food movie classic, Babette’s Feast .  Occasionally the instructor would speak over the movie to explain some detail.  When Babette presents a lush molded item, he says, “Vacherin !”  No way was that a Vacherin —a meringue piped dessert with fruits and elegant sauces—it was a Savarin .  I waited until after class to tell him.  His response was asking me to make it, which I did the next week.  He explained it to all and everyone was happy eating this yeast bread that is really a very fine cake.


In meeting that man first mentioned, I had such a cultural and emotional shock that I even changed what I said was my nationality to French, Russian, and Jewish.  Don’t worry, I still say that, but have added Greek, Egyptian, and Irish to the mix, all just wonderful from a convent-raised girl originally English and German!  I’m thankful that all these years my life has been laced with all this diversity and challah baking.

Finally, I haven’t been to many, but one attendance at Shabbat will stand out forever on a Friday night at Rancho La Puerta in Mexico; the whole event was sung by a Rancho guest who was an opera star from Philadelphia.

Here is a useful website on bread types.  Are you starting to bake yet?


Dianne Boate headshot

Dianne Boate, a former staff member of the original Dating Game television show, and later, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, is The Hat Lady, maker of custom millinery, and The Cake Lady, a special events baker for 30 years in the Bay Area.  Between cake assignments she has had several one-woman photography shows, and participated as a botanical illustrator in group shows benefiting the Conservatory of Flowers, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Marin Cancer Institute, and University of California Alumni Association. Her website can be found at http://www.boatecollection.com.

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