Bread, a basic, humble food represents so much of what is happening during the pandemic. While some are fortunate to nourish their creativity and yearning for comfort foods by becoming amateur bakers, others line up 24 hours in advance at food banks to secure loaves of bread and other foods. Bread highlights so many of our society’s problems, from the injustices of food access and increasing food insecurity during COVID, to the brokenness of food systems (such as the contrasting shortages of flour in supermarkets compared with food banks), to access to healthy foods (homemade breads, sometimes with heirloom grains versus processed), and the luxury of those of us with time and resources to delve into baking bread.
As we live in social isolation, it’s a reminder, too, of how bread brings us together. I miss sharing fresh bread with friends and family on Shabbat, and this ritual just is not the same on Zoom. But, bread has also been a connector for me: my next door neighbor makes fresh bread at the end of every week, and leaves a little warm package of it at my door, often with a jar of fresh soup. It’s so good and she knows that I will eat it all in one sitting, so she just gives me enough for one meal and then leaves another portion the next day, until all of the bread is gone.
Recently, I schlepped a third of the way across the country by car to visit my sister and her family. There were so many highlights to the couple of weeks with them, including time spent in the kitchen with her cooking and baking (some successes and some failures). She, like many other COVID-inspired bakers, has been using a sourdough starter, given to her by a friend who brought gravitas to its lineage equivalent to that of a family heirloom. In some communities, sourdough starter has become a prized ingredient to secure during COVID. Recently, an offering of portions of a starter was posted on my neighborhood listserv with the following note:
“For what it’s worth (maybe nothing!), I’m told this starter has been in my family for about 150 years and came from Norway. If many people reply I may have to establish a cut off, or stagger the distribution over time in order to let it reproduce between sharings.”
Last winter, in another era known as pre-COVID, I had an incredible vegan sourdough challah at a synagogue potluck. I got the recipe and have excitedly wanted to try to recreate it. Finally, with my sister, I got to make it. In the humid, sticky summer heat of her kitchen, the dough thrived. It’s an easy recipe to follow and the dough was pillowy, soft and easy to handle. We sprinkled the braided bread with a mix of sesame seeds, but it would also be delicious plain or with other toppings and spices. The baked breads held up well, and though they were gone by Sunday, they did not dry out.
My sister’s family has an unusual custom of not only sprinkling salt on their challah slices, but also drizzling olive oil and a smear of butter (I suggest Miyokos vegan butter), all symbolic additions. It is a delicious addition to the sourdough challah.
Vegan Sourdough Challah
The recipe was texted to me with only “Breads from the Ashkenazi Tradition” at the bottom of the pages. I honestly am not sure of the cookbook but I think it’s from A Blessing of Bread.
2 tbsp very active, fully fermented starter
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup bread flour
1 2/3 cup warm water
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp granulated sugar (I used turbinado sugar)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
5-6 cups bread flour (I used a mixture of whole wheat bread flour, spelt and white self rising)
Evening before baking:
1. Knead the starter into the water until partially dissolved and then add the flour.
2. Knead until it is smooth.
3. Remove 3/4 cup starter to use in the final dough and put in a large container
1. In a large bowl, stir together the water, salt and sugar until dissolved. Stir in the oil and bread flour all at once and mix with a wooden spoon or your hands. The mixture should become a “shaggy ball”.
2. Put it on your work surface (or keep in the bowl if it’s too sticky. It was very humid outside when I made it and the dough was quite moist). Add the starter and knead the dough until it is fairly smooth. You might need to add more flour if it’s wet. Add water if it’s too firm. The dough should be easy to knead.
3. Clean the bowl and make sure it is warm. Add the dough and cover it. Let it sit for about two hours. It will only slightly rise.
4. The recipe suggests braiding the bread now and leaving on parchment paper lined baking sheets. I prefer to braid just before baking. Whichever you choose, let the dough rise for three to five hours (if you don’t braid now, knead it a tiny bit, equivalent to braiding).
5. Thirty minutes before baking, put the rack on the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees or 425 degrees for freestanding loaves and 450 degrees for rolls.
6. Braid the breads and place on a parchment lined baking sheet, if you did not do already. If sticky, add a bit of flour to the dough.
6. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until the loaves have tripled in size and remain indented when pressed with your finger.