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Challah taste testers
Judges Debi Benoit of Wellesley (left), Rabbi Herman Blumberg of Newton, Vince De Gutis of Natick, and Marti Neugarten of Natick inspect the 6 challah loaves from area bakeries.   Challah taste test results

Best of bites

A panel of tasters pinches challahs to find the top bread for the holiday table

People will travel miles for a good challah. This beloved eggy bread, almost always braided, can be cakey, dense, or rich. It is also a little sweet.

When the Jewish New Year begins at sundown on Friday night, challah -- baked in a round shape for the holiday -- will be on all Jewish tables, to be eaten after a blessing. Home cooks rarely make challah, but rather buy it from a handful of kosher bakeries or markets that bake the bread according to kosher standards.

Everyone has an opinion about what challah should be like, so we assembled five tasters recently to sample local breads. The panel was composed of a rabbi, a traditional Jewish cook (my mother-in-law), and a freelance business writer and mother of three. Those three were raised on challah. Also on board were a Wellesley real estate agent and a tax accountant. Both brought no expectations or childhood memories to sway their tastes; neither had ever eaten challah.

All the breads were bought the morning of the taste-test. They came from Cheryl-Anns' of Brookline and Kupels Bake & Bagel, also in Brookline; Quebrada Baking Co. in Wellesley; Ruth's Bake Shop in Stoughton; Diamond Bakery in Newton; and Stop & Shop in Natick. (There are many other challahs in the Boston area; this tasting was not meant to be comprehensive.) The breads were numbered and their origins were

not disclosed to the panel, who were asked to judge them on appearance, texture, and taste. They looked first, of course, then tasted, then commented.

Cheryl-Anns' was the panel's favorite challah in the taste category (it was unanimous). Panelists liked its sweet taste and rich, chewy texture. It reminded seasoned tasters of challahs from their childhoods.

But looks can be deceiving. Cheryl-Anns' challah didn't win the beauty contest. Instead, the more rounded, darker-crusted and less shiny loaves from Ruth's and Diamond bakeries were singled out for their good looks. Two of the tasters liked the shape and crust of the Stop & Shop challah, while others thought it looked overcooked and machine-made.

The challahs from Ruth's, Kupel's, and Diamond were "fresh looking," said the tasters, with "good height and color" and "nicely rounded."

Quebrada's challah won points for its irregularity. "It has a nice earthy, hand-braided look to it," said Herman Blumberg, senior rabbi of Wayland's Temple Shir Tikva. Debi Benoit, the challah novice from Wellesley, liked the bread's untraditional rectangular shape and uniform golden color.

When it was time to taste, the panelists decided to pull off chunks of the bread, rather than slice it. "It's more festive," suggested Natick's Marti Neugarten, who remembers holiday meals at her grandmother's Brooklyn home.

"The one I thought was the ugliest definitely tastes the best," decided Vince DeGutis, the accountant, about Cheryl-Anns' bread. But the first-timer, a native of Memphis, Tenn., added, "If I had a big slab of butter, some of the others would taste good, too."

The panel agreed that all the breads would make good French toast, especially Diamond's challah, which had a pleasing, spongy quality to it.

Seasoned and novice tasters who gave Quebrada's challah high marks on looks were disappointed by its dry, whole wheat crumb. "It's not challah," said Neugarten. "It's wheat bread."

Rabbi Blumberg explained to the group that the Hebrew word "hallah" means "portion" or "cake." In Biblical times, the Israelites were commanded to take a small portion of their bread and bring it to the priests in the temple as an expression of gratitude. Since then, a small piece of uncooked dough is removed from the bread before baking and burned. Today the word hallah (or challah) is given to the special bread baked for the Sabbath and for festivals.

"In the old days," said the Rabbi, "white bread and eggs were a luxury.

The golden color is crucial to a good challah. The supermarket bread was the panel's least favorite. "It almost looks green," announced my mother-in-law, Frances Granoff, who also thought it was heavy-tasting. The lemon-lime color (apparently from the addition of turmeric) turned off even the novice judges. This challah was dry and bland. It is omitted from the graphic on page E1 because it failed to meet the panel's standards.

The tasters decided that challah should be sweet, rich, and eggy -- up a few notches in flavor and luxury from sandwich bread, so you know it's a special occasion.

"Cheryl-Anns' challah tastes celebratory," said the Rabbi. "The rest are just bread." Very good bread, though, in the case of Diamond, which placed second in the tasting, and Ruth's, which was third.

Challah's shapes and decorations vary throughout the year, but tradition dictates a round challah for the High Holidays to symbolize the never-ending cycle of life. "We celebrate a series of cycles, and this is the reminder of the power of renewal in our lives," said Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel in Boston.

Many modern holiday loaves are unadorned. But cookbook author Joan Nathan fondly recalls that her mother-in-law, on her round challah, would wrap a single braid from the edge of the loaf toward the middle, ending in the shape of a bird, symbolizing the desire to fly up to heaven.
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