Why I Bake
Purim is over and in three weeks Passover will arrive. It is the season of ridding ourselves of Chametz before the holiday of freedom begins. What better time to post a short essay on baking by Ellen Krueger? To view Ellen's Instagram posts, you can easily see Ellen's baking pursuits. Whether it is hamantaschen, bialys, bagels, challah, sourdough or other goodies, you will find them all on Ellen's (@challah.la) feed. I know that you will be hungry after reading Ellen's post!!!
By Ellen Feinstein Krueger (@challah.la)
I love to bake. Especially bread. I find it to be a soothing and contemplative activity. It’s also a craft. You can have a recipe that works for everyone else, yet it fails when you try it. I’ve had that happen on occasion and it drives me nuts. It’s okay for other kinds of recipes to fail, but when bread does, I feel it’s my fault.
My first adventure in making bread was when I was a little kid. I had an Easy Bake Oven and made the biscuit mix that came with it. I made them early in the day and my mother kept them warm in the oven. The results were a dozen or so small rocks that my brothers unkindly bounced across the table to each other while ridiculing me. It was early trauma that kept me from trying the bread thing again for a couple of decades.
The next time I tried bread, I was living in NY, on 15th Street, in my wonderful studio apartment. I had my first cookbook,The Spice of Life, by the Northern Council of B’nai Brith Women. Deep inside this cookbook, amid the kugels and briskets and Jello molds, was a recipe for Honey Challah.
I’m not sure what made me try it, but I did. Since I was a beginner, I had no idea how much bread I was making when I tried the recipe. It said it made a large challah, or 2 or three smaller loaves. There was nothing in there to warn me of what large or small meant.
So I forged ahead. I managed to follow the recipe. I did not kill the yeast. All my kneading was done by hand. And it took a very long time. Since I’d never made bread before, what I saw didn’t mean anything when I finally got the dough made, risen, and shaped. But there was a lot of it! Smallish loaves, because I wouldn’t have had a pan big enough for one large loaf.
The end result must have been good enough to eat, because I started making it often. And sharing it with friends and co-workers. I got to the point where I was confident enough to make a large loaf to serve at a party. And that was the beginning.
I was backed into creating a business because of that challah when I offered to make a big bread for a friend’s bar mitzvah Kiddush. The caterer was impressed and asked if I would make breads for him for other events. I said sure. From there, I started making breads for people from my kitchen. Rising To The Occasion was born at a time when it was difficult to get Jewish specialties in our little Jewish outpost in the Route 2 suburbs in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s.
Eventually, I started renting the kitchen in the temple so I could make more at a time, and be cleared by the Board of Health to sell in stores. For a couple of years, I sold bread at Idlylwilde and Donalan’s Supermarket. I produced up to four dozen breads on a Friday morning between 8 am and noon. When costs started to go crazy, for permits and rents, I scaled back to only doing orders for clients and the two local synagogues, again from my kitchen.
I used the challah dough as my art form, making different shapes of challot for different holidays. The most outrageous one I did was for a bar mitzvah. They were having Chinese food (kosher, of course) and the mom wanted a challah shaped like a dragon. I managed to do it. Though when I first shaped it, it looked very fierce. By the time it rose in the oven, it turned all puffy and looked like a lovable cartoon dragon. Wish I had a picture of that one.
Fifty years after baking that first loaf, and finally closing my business, I’ve branched out into making many other kinds of breads. But just for personal use and satisfaction. Sourdough is a particular favorite of mine, as well as making bagels, bialys and pitas. However, when asked to choose a favorite thing to cook, it still has to be challah.
Ellen Feinstein Krueger has been a professional writer since 1969, working in advertising and film projects in New York City. She wrote full-length interviews with Soap Opera stars for Daily Tv Serials Magazine in the mid 1970's. Since the late 70's Ellen has been a freelance writer specializing in local news stories and business profiles. Ellen's series of childrens' books about her Quaker Parakeet, Fonzie, have delighted kids and adults. From the late 1980s until the early 2000's Ellen ran a small catering business, Rising To The Occasion, that focused on Jewish specialty baked goods: challah, mandel brot and ruggelah. Since retiring from that business, Ellen has baked for fun, discovering the joys of sourdough well before the Pandemic made it cool.