Challah bread is 'tricky to make at home' Photograph: Alamy
People often ask if this job brings with it any special perks – and until recently I would always tell them "no". Unless, of course, you consider a free bottle of Starburst-branded, fruit-flavoured milk drink to be a perk (it arrived in the post some months ago; I dispatched it to the dustbin moments later). But then a man called Michael Leventhal asked me if I would like to be a judge at his Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest, in May – and suddenly a massive perk was heading my way. I would be spending a whole hour tasting challah (the Sabbath bread), bagels and cheesecake.
It was a strange kind of day, not least because I began it at the first communion of my twin nieces. No, I'm not Jewish (I'm not Catholic either, but that's a whole other story) – though in 1979 I was the proud winner of the Tu Bishvat competition at Tabeetha School, in Jaffa, my alma mater (Tu Bishvat is the Jewish New Year of the Trees, and you celebrate it by eating figs, dates, apricots and almonds). Needless to say, at Gefiltefest, in Golders Green, I was the only shiksa on the panel. At one point, the judge next to me – Alan Lee, co-owner of London's hottest kosher restaurant, Deli West One – said: "You like sweet things. You must have Polish roots." I didn't have the heart to tell him that my roots, in as far as I have any, are Northern chapel and Norwegian.
But I digress. We duly tasted the challah, bagels and cheesecake, and the winner of each category by about a million miles was Sharon's of Stamford Hill. This was exciting! A reliable purveyor of three of my favourite baked goods was, it seemed, to be found only 15 minutes from my house. A few days later, I rang Sharon's, and asked to speak to its manager, Shuki Mozes. I wanted him to tell me all about – this was how I pictured it – his little artisan bakery. No doubt his challah was baked to a family recipe, one that had followed its members across Europe, and was now kept safely under lock and key. But, no. "We've been open 23 years," he said. "We have five branches, and we supply Tesco and Sainsbury's, too." As you can imagine, this rather took the wind out of my sails.
Shuki would not reveal to me why Sharon's challah is so ambrosial, the burnished crust giving way to a sublimely chewy interior – though he did say that, unlike most challah, it would not go stale five minutes after leaving the shop. Nor would he give me his bagel recipe. Should cheesecake taste mostly of vanilla, or mostly of lemon? I asked. "Neither," he said. And then: "It should taste of cheese."
Of course, I've had good bagels before, and cheesecake is a cinch to make at home. But challah? This is a trickier thing. When my family first tasted it, one Friday evening in 1978 – we were living in Tel Aviv; you couldn't get challah in Sheffield, or not where we lived – we could not get over the disappointment. The loaf looked so beautiful, plaited to symbolise love, and sprinkled with poppy seeds to symbolise the manna that fell from heaven, its crust shining like a pair of polished brogues (challah is glazed with beaten eggs and sometimes honey, too). But you struggled to slice the thing, and then, after all that, it tasted so bland. Plus, as Shuki suggests, by the time Saturday morning came around, it was mostly only good for toasting. Later, when I saw challah described as one of the two great breads of the Ashkenazi world in Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food (the other being the bagel), I was – whisper it – inclined to sneer.
Thanks to the estimable Sharon's, though, I now realise that, done right, it is wonderful: so seductively yielding, once you get inside. But do Shuki and his bakers change the shape of their loaves according to the time of year? I forgot to ask. Alas, no one seems to bake tree-shaped Tu Bishvat bread – though any questions you may have about this particular festival, I will almost certainly be able to answer if I really put my mind to it.
Author Credit : http://www.guardian.co.uk