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.
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.
"We'll see what happens. Maybe it won't work," she frets, pulling just-formed dough from the stand mixer's hook attachment. Nathan recites a ditty from medieval times that she came across during research for the book: If you make bread with oil, you're Jewish. If it's lard, you're a goy.
"I would have loved to work on 'Quiches' for much longer," she says. "But my mother said, 'Get rid of the book already!' Nathan worked on it officially for four years. Her love of all things French dates to age 17, when her father sent her to that country to improve her language skills. Her French today is impeccable, but Nathan says she often brings someone to translate during interviews because "the non-cooking comments come very fast."
In her travels across France over the years, Nathan worked around one main challenge. She became aware that people are not so open about what they do in their own homes: "Jews in particular. I ran into a lot of walls.
"I was in Provence. The wife of a chef I met who was a good friend of Jean-Louis [Palladin] said, 'You won't find any Jews here.' That kind of thinking is from World War II! And her name was Rosenfeld. That's what you run into."
Judith Jones, Nathan's longtime editor and friend, did not immediately think a cookbook about the Jews in France could work. But Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta did.
Early reviews praise Nathan's prowess as a cultural weaver and kitchen pioneer. Although a good number of the book's dishes have French names, they could fit into anyone's repertoire.
The oven is preheated to 375. The dough has rested for five minutes. Nathan asks a visitor to roll a rope of dough about two feet long while she rolls one herself and finds parchment paper to line the baking sheets. "You'll have to give me a minute and a half credit," she says to the clock watcher. Loops of the ropes quickly morph into braided breads; she assesses the result. "It doesn't have to be perfect. Imperfect is fine. When you twist a bread, people love it."
She whisks egg yolks and water, then brushes the loaves after they have been moved to the parchment. Next, a trick: She presses a forefinger into the sesame seeds and repeats nubbly embellishments on each rounded curve of dough. Into the oven they go, at 18 minutes and counting.
The mini-history lesson continues. "Being Jewish: It's just not the kind of thing that was talked about. I learned that a lot of parents did not tell their children they were Jewish until the kids were 17, or 21," Nathan says; some still learn about it only when their parents are close to death.
The challahs have risen and turned golden, 30 minutes in.
"I was just reading Sartre's 'Antisemite and Jew,'" she says. "It was interesting after all this research. I thought about the time in which he wrote it, and about how it is easier to scapegoat than to be introspective about what you might change in yourself."
Meanwhile, the challahs are smelling out loud.
"The bread! I was supposed to turn it down after 10 minutes. It might burn too much," she says, peering through the oven window. "And it's not as high as it usually gets. I should have let it sit longer. We'll have to give it a few extra minutes."
For every wall Nathan has run into during years of discovery, she has managed to find her way through many more, through her notable connections. "Living in Washington is wonderful," she says. "People here know people everywhere." Chef-restaurateur Michel Richard introduced her to Jean Joho, chef of Everest in Chicago, who referred her to his aunt in Alsace, who told Nathan about catering events there that turned out to be balls held for the Jewish holidays of Purim and Simhat Torah where Jews of Alsace and southern Germany have a chance to socialize.
The oven timer pings, and Nathan transfers the pans of challah to the counter. Total time: 57 minutes.
"Well, it worked. But maybe it could have cooked a little more." She pulls a piece to taste. "It needs to cool. I might have put more salt in it, don't you think?"
A visitor is too busy inhaling the aroma of anise between steamy, chewy bites.
Nathan seems relieved - for a moment. "It's pretty good. Very good.
"You know, you could do it without the anise and add a little sugar instead."Recipes