A Full Set of Teeth
by Ana Schwartzman
I've come to South San Francisco on a foggy Sunday morning to learn how to bake challah. Over the phone, Celia told me to arrive with hands clean and dressed in something that can take a little flour and egg. "And dear, don't bring a pen or notebook. Challah is made with the eye and hands, not a recipe."
My journey to Celia's kitchen began a few weeks earlier at a Shabbat dinner with friends. A golden braided challah was served with the meal. I had never tasted anything as giving and sweet. I asked where the bread was from.
"This," said my friend, caressing the bread's shiny top "is a Celia."
"A what?" I asked.
"A Celia. Only the best challah ever. She makes two dozen of these loaves each week and sells them from her living room on Friday afternoons. She goes to my mom's synagogue." Sensing that I had to know more about a woman who makes 24 breads in a non-commercial kitchen each Friday, my friend told me that Celia can easily be persuaded to give a lesson in challah baking.
Celia greets me at the door wearing a loud oilcloth apron over a green nylon jogging suit. Her white hair is cropped short and her skin is smooth for 79. Her thick shoulders curl forward. Celia shakes my hand, admires my sweater, and tells me I'm a few minutes late. Without giving me a chance to settle in, she ushers me to a kitchen table cluttered with ingredients. Celia is anxious to get right to the mixing she tells me, because it's cold out this morning and the dough will need time to rise.
Though the tabletop is crowded, I notice that each ingredient is in its own canister or bowl. Celia tells me to stand in front of the mixing bowl. "Now," she says, "I will tell you what to do in steps." Her orders are concise, but punctuated with "dear," softening the commands. "Mix the yeast with the sugar in the green bowl, dear." "Put your finger in the water. Does it feel warm enough to bathe in? Good. Pour the yeast mixture into it, dear."
At first, I am amazed by the ease of the tasks. But when Celia tells me to eyeball 1/4 cup of sugar and a cup of flour, I seize up. Celia steps in, quickly leveling off a small orange juice glass of sugar and a mug-full of flour. I redeem myself, though, with my neat egg cracking, a skill Celia says is pertinent for baking.
We use a KitchenAid mixer, which Celia says she fought tooth and nail when her younger daughter bought it for her ten years ago.
When I add the last of the oil, eggs, and flour and have created a thick dough, she approaches the counter. The next step, she says, requires hands-on instruction, emulation. "I've taught both daughters and all five grandkids how to knead challah dough. God knows I can teach anybody. My husband, Marvin, used to say I knead with an iron fist. He died three years ago."
For the next ten minutes I watch Celia alternate between rhythmic massage and downright abuse, the yellow ball of dough obeying her every command. She breaks off a piece of dough for me and we pound and punch in unison. "You do this better than my oldest daughter. Can you believe she buys challah for her family? Won't make it if her life depends on it. Fancy career girl. She's a lawyer in San Diego." I think to tell Celia that when I have a family, I will stay home with my children and teach them to bake cookies and garden.
As we're waiting for the dough to rise, we sit drinking tea from mugs that say "UCLA Grandma" and "Don't bother me, I'm drinking!" "I'd offer you a cookie," she says, "but don't have any. Marvin was diabetic so we never had them. I have a better figure than any girl in the bridge club, I tell you." I look at Celia's thighs and then my own. She does have a pretty good figure.
Celia is a Berkeley girl, she tells me. Her father was a history professor at U.C. Berkeley and her mother a former swimming champion from New Jersey. Celia's mother and father had been courting before her father was called into service in World War I. Celia's mother told Celia's father not to return maimed or she wouldn't marry him. Luckily, he returned in one piece.
Celia moved to South San Francisco after she met her husband and they decided to open a sheet music store on Lassen Street. "Rent was cheap in this area. There was nothing around here. No synagogue then."
When the dough has risen to Celia's liking, it's time to braid. Celia says I can do this on my own without her help. "If you can braid hair, you can braid challah. This is the easy part. It's knowing how to treat the dough that's hard." I split the dough into three parts and roll them into ropes like she says. Within the first three seconds of braiding, the ropes begin to stick together. Celia gently nudges me over to one side and quickly remedies my mess with a handful of flour. I want to ask her if this is a common problem for novice challah bakers, but I don't ask.
We sprinkle my loaf with sesame seeds. Celia explains that the Sephardic Jews prefer poppy seeds, but she was raised by German-Jewish Ashkenazi parents and has never acquired a taste for them. We cover the challah with a warm towel and let it rise for an hour. I can understand why Celia's older daughter would rather buy it. Who has time for all this waiting?
"Don't let anyone tell you challah can have chocolate chips or raisins in it. It's like those bagels you see with blueberries. Ach. The goyim try to get fancy with our food." Celia suddenly looks up at me, worried. "You're Jewish, right? I don't offend?" I nod, somehow giving her permission to use the pronouns us and them for the next hour.
"My daughters both married non-Jews," she says. "I suppose it's my own fault because they never had any Jewish kids in their classes growing up." Still, she assures me, her son-in-laws are nice boys. Glancing at my ring finger, she asks if my husband is Jewish. When I tell her he is, she asks why I don't bake him challah for Shabbat. I shrug and feel my cheeks flush.
She then tells me that all but one of her five grandchildren are in college. All smart kids. The only boy has his grandfather Marvin's musical tendencies.
Without a clock in sight, Celia instinctively gets up, checks that the challah has risen, brushes an egg wash over the top, and places it in the oven. "The one thing I can tell you for sure," she says, "is that 375 degrees is a good temperature for baking challah." She tells me it will require exactly 32 minutes baking time in her oven.
I ask her how she gets the dough so yellow. "The saffron powder we put into the mixer earlier is the secret yellower in my challah. Our people have always been resourceful, we don't use artificial colors. They use artificial everything!" I don't tell her that my Jewish grandmother added orange food coloring to the candied carrots she served at Passover.
Celia's daughters say she should move her wedding ring over to her right hand. She might find a nice guy. "I don't want to bother with that. I have everything I need. Marvin was the only man for me. I see the trouble my granddaughters have with boys—who needs that?"
When it's time to take the challah out of the oven, Celia hands me an oven mitt crusty with old dough. The bread is plump and brown and smells like what grandmothers' houses should smell like. I want to jump in right away, tear into the crusty braid, but Celia says I have to wait 30 minutes for the gluten to settle and cool. I am amazed that I created this yeasty concoction. "You've done so good," says Celia, catching my admiration for the bread, "that I may just let you come back and help me some Friday morning." I wonder if she means this.
I tell her she must be proud of her ability to teach the art of challah baking to kids who've grown up on fast food and have never cooked anything except in a microwave.
"You know what I'm most proud of?" Celia asks. I'm sure she's about to point to her large, smiling brood, propped up against the kitchen window in a silver frame. "I still have a full set of teeth. All my own," she says, parting her lips and giving me a horse face. I laugh and she catches my eyes darting to the photograph. "That picture is god-awful. The grandkids look fine, but what? My daughters think it's winter in those turtlenecks?"
On the way home from Celia's, in the car, on the freeway, I reach over to the challah on the passenger seat and rip into it. It's fluffy and warm and sweet and tastes even better than the Celia challah I had eaten a few weeks before.
The following is a version of Celia's challah recipe. I've used Judy Zeidler's Classic Challah recipe from The Gourmet Jewish Cook as a reference since it was difficult to get Celia to give me exact measurements for any of the ingredients. I ran this version by Celia. "That's one way of making challah," she said. I've tested the recipe below—it makes bread almost as delicious as Celia's.
2 packages active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
1/4 cup plus a pinch granulated sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons salt
8 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon saffron powder
3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
Sesame or poppy seeds
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup of the warm water with a pinch of sugar.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the remaining water, 1/4 cup sugar, oil, salt, and the yeast mixture. Add 3 eggs and blend well. Add saffron powder. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, blending after each addition, until dough is thick enough to work by hand.
Spoon dough onto floured board and knead for 10 minutes, adding additional flour to make dough smooth and elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and brush the top of the dough with oil. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in size. This should take about 1 hour in warm weather, 2 hours in a cooler climate. Punch the dough and turn it over halfway through the rising process.
Divide dough into three parts. Form each part into a long rope. Pinch together one end of each of the three ropes and braid them, pinching together the other ends.
Place the challah on an oiled baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover with towel and let rise until doubled, approximately 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush challah with remaining egg lightly beaten, and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on rack.
Ana Schwartzman is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco. She has written for food, health, and technology publications and is currently working on a collection of personal essays. She gets her Latin temper from her Argentine mother and some of her best recipes by accosting strangers in the grocery store.