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Joan Nathan and a speed challah

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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:55 AM

Joan Nathan is nervous. Nervous about the challah she is getting ready to make in her Washington kitchen.

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The author of America's most beloved Jewish cookbooks, including the prized "Jewish Cooking in America," has made thousands of braided egg breads. But this is the first time she will attempt to produce two freshly baked loaves, start to finish, in under 60 minutes in front of an audience.

The relevatory recipe comes from her new "Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France" (Knopf), the culmination of a lifetime's study and passion.

"No one is going to believe this bread," she says. "Everyone is going to want to make it."

Nathan learned about the pain petri, or kneaded bread, through the process she knows best: a taste, an inquiry about who prepared it, an interview and a bake-along. She taps into a connection and then has one more story to tell.

In this case, Bordeaux caterer Georgette Hamier had made long, double-twisted challahs whose interiors were shot through with anise seed. They were for the grand rabbi of Bordeaux, who had invited Nathan to his home for a Sabbath dinner.

Hamier lives in a fifth-floor walk-up. As Nathan took notes on a laptop in the apartment's small galley, the elderly woman talked about her mother, who had been a baker in the Jewish quarter of Fez, in Morocco. Hamier described her own journey to Israel and then France, where she makes 10 challahs a week for the rabbi's synagogue. The Bordeaux baker "used neither measuring cups nor an electric mixer to make her bread," Nathan writes. Hamier told her it would take one hour.

Nathan's penchant for research completes the bread's story and significance in the recipe's headnote: how women in the Middle Ages kneaded dough, then brought their shaped loaves to bake in public ovens, and what that ritual meant to Jews in Morocco. Finally, the experienced recipe writer adapts the ingredients and directions for a modern cook, testing the food herself.

"I'm always learning from people," she says, in addition to what she gleans from 14th-century French manuscripts, piecing together information from libraries and sources, and following leads from trusted experts. She commands instant recall of much of what she studies.

A conversation with the sophisticated 67-year-old Rhode Island native that lasts more than 10 minutes can prompt the notion there ought to be a Six Degrees of Joan Nathan game. She counts some of the world's most famous chefs and food luminaries as friends; they, in turn, admire her intellect and find it endearing that when Nathan tells a story, tangents are de rigeur.

Nathan the challah maker gathers enough yeast, eggs, vegetable oil, salt, sugar, anise seed and a small jar of roasted sesame seeds from a Chinese market to make half the recipe. She opens a lined drawer full of flour at the baking station in her kitchen; it's an idea from her friend, cooking instructor Patricia Wells.

The bread clock starts.


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