The business of challah – more than just making dough
Normally on Thursday afternoons, Dan Messinger and his head baker at Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe, Gilberto Escobar, fold pieces of dough on a large rustic table, making braided challah. But on this sunny afternoon, they do something special: they add apples and honey to the dough, then swirl the mound into a round shape. They do this only at this time of year, when they bake challah for the High Holy Days, from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot.
The smell of freshly baked challah quickly fills the bakery, a reminder of the approaching festive meals.
For Messinger, 40, who has been the owner of Bibi’s cafe since 2011, the smell is reminiscent of his childhood and times when he baked challah with his father while growing up in Philadelphia.
“There was a lot of smell of challah that I really enjoyed,” he said.
Until recently, Messinger didn’t expect his lasting passion would turn into a full-time job.
Messinger moved to Southern California in 1999 after he graduated from the University of Michigan. He came here to pursue a career in writing and producing, and took several jobs, working in reality TV and for a marketing production company. But long hours and frequent business trips left him stressed and overworked. When he started looking for new job opportunities, the answer came naturally: Making challah.
He purchased the bakery near the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards in 2011 and began by making pastries, stone-oven-baked pizzas, sabich sandwiches, and other types of Israeli street food.
“There is something real about the bakery,” he said. “There is nothing more real than making bread, as you receive lot of real-time reaction from customers.”
By the time Messinger took ownership, the bakery had been open for nine years and had regular customers and an established menu. Messinger decided to keep the menu, which includes Turkish bourekas and sambusas, also known as Middle Eastern calzone. The majority of food on the Bibi’s menu is heavily influenced by Eastern European and Middle Eastern cuisines.
“Some people walk in and say, ‘It reminds me of Israel,’ ” he said. “To me it means we’re doing something right.”
But the most popular item on the menu has remained challah.
On Thursday afternoons, Messinger and Escobar mix yeast with water. Then they combine yeast, sugar and salt before putting them into an electric mixer to make dough. Escobar lays small portions of dough on the table to rise. Then he rolls each portion into rope-like strands and swirls them into a circle, shaping round challah, a symbol of the cycle of life and the crown of God.
The process is labor-intensive and can take up to three hours.
“The ingredients are not expensive, but it takes a long time to make challah,” Messinger said.
During a regular week, Bibi offers challah in five flavors, including whole wheat and chocolate chip. The High Holy Days’ challahs are slightly sweeter than the regular ones because of the apples and honey, symbols of the Jewish New Year.
It was a quiet day at Bibi’s on a recent afternoon with just a few customers waiting in line. Messinger wore a brown apron with lettering that said “Dan The Man,” a brown cap and black-framed glasses. Once in a while, he greeted customers or picked up the phone to take an order.
Vintage posters and food advertisements covered the walls. A stone-domed oven separated the kitchen from the cafe. An Israeli flag hung in the window.
Soon those windows would be filled with freshly baked challah, as more people placed their orders. On average, each customer buys two challahs for each holiday meal, and a line of customers sometimes stretches outside of the store and down the block.
For Rosh Hashanah, Dan and his team make up to 300 challahs and sell them for $6 or $7 each, depending on the flavor. On a regular day, challahs are $5 and $6.
When Alain Cohen, another challah baker in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, moved from Tunisia in the mid-1980s, he decided to put a spin on a traditional challah. He opened the Got Kosher? restaurant and dipped challah into a pretzel bath to give it a new look. His updated version of challah received lots of positive feedback from customers, and that inspired Cohen to continue his experiments. He created challahs with more flavors, including Belgium chocolate chunks, nuts, raisins and dried fruits.
“I wanted to show people that challah can have more than just bread,” he said.
For Rosh Hashanah, Got Kosher? sells eight different flavors, including challah with rosemary, apricots and walnuts.
The most popular one has sesame seeds and a little hand print on top, a challah for which his customers wait for weeks.
“We have a tradition in Tunisia to put fingers of the hand on top of challah,” Cohen said, adding that the symbol means an offering and a prayer for a sweet life. “There are a lot of symbols packed into challah.”
For Messinger, in preparation for the busy holiday season, the new year is about keeping a balance. In his first year of High Holy Days baking, he sold out all of his challah, which was good for business, but then he had nothing to take home.
This year, he will try to make enough challah for his customers and his own family, but not too many, so he won’t end up with ones that get thrown away.
“When I have a ton of challah leftovers, even though the ingredients are not that expensive, I feel bad,” he said. “Not because of money, but because I know how hard the baker worked, and how much work we all put into it.”