WATCH: The Tunisian Jew Behind the Pretzel Challah Craze
In 2013, pastry chef Dominique Ansel invented the cronut (a donut and croissant hybrid). Little did he know, he was inspiring a pastry revolution, which would spawn a legion of hybrid spin-offs; i.e. the dookie (donut + cookie), the cruffin (croissant + muffin), the cragel (croissant + bagel). And then came the pretzel challah. There’s no fancy moniker (challetzel doesn’t really work). It’s no nonsense, straightforward and to the point.
Pretzel challah is the brainchild of Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher?, a Pico-Robertson establishment that serves Sephardic cuisine (including kosher charcuterie) in what is a primarily Ashkenazi juggernaut. Born in Tunisia and raised in Paris (where his father owned a popular kosher restaurant), he moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to pursue a movie career, but, in his own words, “life happened” and he landed, as fate would have it, back in the food industry. Cohen got the idea for pretzel challah when he was working at La Brea Bakery with chef Nancy Silverton. At the bakery, Silverton baked a pretzel baguette. “I was impressed by the idea of turning something very simple and making it different by mixing two traditions,” said Cohen.
The key ingredient that transforms a plain jane loaf of challah into a pretzel challah is lye. After the challah dough is braided, it is soaked in a lye bath (lye is a chemical solution that’s used to make soap) before being baked.
Pretzel challah has proved to be a pioneer in Los Angeles Jewish cuisine. Got Kosher’s? pretzel challah can be found at Trader Joe’s, Pavilions, Whole Foods, Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, and, of course, at its flagship store: Got Kosher?
To Cohen, the success of his challah “is amazing, it’s a gift from God.”