The First Best Thing my father ever came home with after work was, by far, a Ford Granada. It was powder blue, four doors, with a white vinyl top, and when I hopped on the kitchen counter to peek out the window that overlooked our driveway, I remember saying to myself, Is this real? Did my father just pull into our home with a new car? No matter that the Granada epitomized the darkest days of late-70s American car design. This sedan was ours, it was new, it beat the hell out of our rickety old white Pontiac wagon, and in the big huge world of two siblings, two parents, and my kindergarten class, news didn’t get much more monumental than that.
The Second Best Thing that my father ever came home with after work was the soundtrack to Grease. My sister and I were playing in a back room with some of the neighborhood kids and I knew we were in for a treat when I saw the Sam Goody bag tucked under his arm. We had already seen the movie and knew the words to all the songs but there was jumping and shrieking when he made the dramatic reveal. The fact that I was seven years old and obsessed with a movie where pregnancy and sex are routinely discussed, and that now, as a mom, I can’t really imagine screening it for my 7- and 9-year-old, well, see above re: late 70s.
The Third Best Thing that my father came home with after work (which is another way of saying “for dinner” because he was always home in time to eat) was a freshly baked challah. Unlike the First and Second Best Thing, this was a gift I could look forward to fairly regularly. On his one-mile walk home from the train station, Dad would swing by our local bakery – the one with the display case of chocolate éclairs and Napoleons and a roll of baker’s twine hanging from the ceiling — and pick up a loaf. On most nights the challah was of the plain braided variety. But on special nights, it was a challah that had been studded with plump golden raisins. As soon as Dad handed me the loaf in the waxy bag, I’d slice up a still-slightly-warm piece, spread a schmear of Breakstone’s whipped salted butter on top, and let the happiness wash over me. Life was about as good as it could get for a girl wearing a velour warm-up suit.
Much as I like to think my delight was the main reason he brought home the bread every night (remember: my Dad was the philosopher who coined the famous food-happiness concept of “Absolute Value”) the ritual had actually been in place long before John Travolta was in style. Every Sunday morning as a teenager, my dad and his father, Phillip (who is pictured above with his brothers at his family table and who, like all my grandparents, died before I was born), would walk north from their 165th Street apartment in the Bronx to their local bakery on 167th Street. During the week, my grandfather was up and out the door before anyone was awake – he worked as a furrier in the Garment District – but on Sundays, he and my Dad would head out to do the Crucial Sunday Morning Job of selecting breads and danishes for the family breakfast. They’d talk about the normal stuff — school, my grandfather’s job — but the one-on-one bread-gathering mission was a reason to look forward to Sunday. As my dad recalls, it was the first time he felt like a grown-up.
The story of this ritual has taken on a misti-ness over the years, especially as I grow older and realize how valuable these select memories are and how crucial it is to keep the rituals associated with them alive. We do not have regular Friday night Shabbat dinner in my house like my father did, and in truth, if my sister didn’t organize Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur and Passover and Channukah) dinners every year, I’m not so sure I’d get them in the calendar myself. But on the days of the year that do not qualify as High Holy Ones, I somehow manage to feel connected to something bigger than myself. Like when I braid my first homemade challah with Abby using my second cousin Ronnie’s recipe; or when I use a knife to peel an apple in one long strip, just like my mom told me her father used to do. Or when I secure the recipe to my Aunt Selma’s famous sweet-and-sour meatballs that she served at every family gathering growing up. Or back in 1994 when Andy and I had just moved to New York, and we’d meet after work at the corner of Smith and President Street in his up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. I can still see him walking up the block wearing his pleated khakis and Joseph Aboud tie, carrying his messenger bag and, yes, a loaf of crusty Italian bread from Caputo’s on Court Street. We’d head another two blocks west to Andy’s Hoyt street rental – a four-story brownstone with full garden, eat-in kitchen, all of which cost him and each of his three roommates $400 a month — and that bread would be the start of dinner.
SERVES 8 TO 10
Legend has it that this challah was first baked by Ronnie’s grandmother and that someone once paid her one hundred dollars for it during the Depression! I mix golden raisins into the dough because it reminds me of my dad and the way I ate it as a kid. Makes 1 medium challah.
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (about 105°F; feels slightly warm to the touch), divided
1⁄4 cup sugar, divided
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed for the dough and for the work surface
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup golden raisins (optional)
In a small bowl, mix the yeast, 1/4 cup of the warm water, 1⁄4 teaspoon of the sugar, and a pinch of the flour. Stir and set aside for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly.
While the yeast is activating, place 3 3/4 cups of the flour with the remaining sugar and the salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add 2 of the eggs, the vegetable oil, and the remaining 3/4 cup warm water. Mix, using the dough hook, until well combined. Add the yeast mixture and the raisins (if using) and blend in thoroughly, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the dough and, using your hands, knead for 2 to 3 minutes on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add the remaining flour as needed to make the dough smooth and soft, but not overly sticky.
Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rise in a warm place for about 1 1⁄2 hours or until doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down, cover the bowl, and let rise again for about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Remove the dough to a floured surface.
Cut the dough into 3 or 6 pieces, depending on whether you are going to make a 3- or 6-strand braid. (Or round for the holidays.) Make long strands out of each piece. Braid the strands and seal the ends together by pressing on the dough. Place the bread on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Beat the last egg and brush the surface with it. (You won’t need all of it.) Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
While the dough is in the last rise, preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the challah for about 30 minutes or until firm and golden brown.