Challah of a tale: Authors family project becomes successful cookbook

Judy Bart Kancigor is one of the rare Cinderella stories in publishing, beating the odds to earn a contract without contacts in the industry.

It all started with a spiral-bound volume of family recipes that would become “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family,” published last year by Workman.

In 1996, Kancigor lived in Orange County and was a court reporter. She was about to become a grandmother; some aunts on her maternal grandmother’s side were declining in health.

“As Aunt Estelle’s condition worsened, Aunt Sally was moving into assisted living,” Kancigor recalls. “Aunt Hilda was on dialysis, and Aunt Irene didn’t know who I was when I called.

“That’s when it hit me — one generation was leaving while another one was coming. How would my grandchild know about the Rabinowitz family?”

Alarmed by this prospect, she wanted to give the baby a gift — the past on a plate.

“I wished I could reach my arms across the generations and somehow pass on a taste of the legacy that had been bequeathed to me,” Kancigor says. “I decided to become a conduit. But I wondered what I wanted to impart besides Aunt Sally’s apple cake and Aunt Irene’s kugel. I wanted the next generation to know the stories, to know where we came from, to know our history.”

It was a history seasoned with tantalizing foods. Cooking and eating were staples of Rabinowitz life.

Kancigor’s maternal grandparents, Hinda and Harry Rabinowitz, immigrated to New York City from Belarus in 1907. In Belle Harbor, Queens, they raised seven children on shtetl fare, notably kishke and kreplach. Free from Cossack terror, they hoped their children would receive an education and succeed.

Their children thrived on foods Mama Hinda measured with a yahrzeit glass. They spoke English, fulfilled their parents’ dreams and never heard the hoof beats of Cossack horses.

Kancigor’s mother and aunts carried the torch, cooking old world favorites in their modern kitchens. They relied on Mama Hinda’s handfuls of a little of this and that to make black bread, potatoes and chicken soup as they simultaneously embraced Jell-O and sliced white bread, clipping trendy recipes from women’s magazines.

Early in the writing process, Kancigor enrolled in a cookbook seminar at UCLA. The teacher, cookbook author Norman Kolpas, asked students to describe their projects.

Kancigor was intimidated among the chefs, food writers and caterers.

“Oh, I’m just writing a family cookbook,” mumbled Kancigor, who, incidentally, is a food columnist these days for the Orange County Register.

Kolpas grew serious and pointed a finger at her.

“What you’re doing is very important,” she said. “Don’t let anyone stop you.”

Kancigor contacted relatives as she assembled an album of family recipes, stories and photos. Taking a huge gamble, she printed 500 copies of what was then called “Melting Pot Memories.”

While her husband feared these spiral bound books would forever clutter their garage, she handed out copies at a nephew’s bar mitzvah.

With minimal publicity, word spread. “Melting Pot Memories” sold faster than honey cakes at Rosh Hashanah; sales reached 11,000 copies. Its overwhelming success landed her a book contract from Workman to write an expanded version.

Along the way, Kancigor’s son asked, “Why are people reading about our family?”

The simple answer: They are hungry for their forgotten past. In essence, the Rabinowitzes are every American Jewish family.

“Every Friday, my grandmother baked challah,” Kancigor says. “My brother Gary and I could smell it wafting from upstairs.”

At Rosh Hashanah, they would break off chunks and dip them in honey for a sweet New Year. Decades later in 1976, when Kancigor heard her grandmother was in intensive care, she was compelled to get the recipe for a challah that was as light as a cloud.

From her deathbed, 91-year-old Mama Hinda dictated its ingredients and instructions to Kancigor’s mother, who wrote it down. The recipe would be set aside for years.

Assembling her cookbook, Kancigor tried the recipe. The results were disappointing.

“In her condition, perhaps Mama Hinda forgot to mention certain crucial things,” she says.

Devastated, Kancigor took the recipe scribbled on scrap paper to a professional baker, who miraculously re-created the challah’s exact taste.

“I had a madeleine moment when I took my first bite,” says Kancigor.

Since then Kancigor’s first grandchild was born; three more have followed.

“They never knew Mama Hinda but they’ve eaten her challah,” she says. “It’s tying the generations together.”

Mama Hinda’s Challah

Yields a half-pound round challah

31⁄2 cups bread flour

1⁄2 cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees)

23⁄4 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 tsp. and 1⁄4 cup sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1⁄4 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling the bowl

11⁄2 tsp. kosher (coarse) salt

1⁄3 cup raisins (optional)

vegetable oil, vegetable cooking spray or parchment paper for greasing baking sheet

Egg wash: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 Tbs. water

Set aside 2 Tbs. of the flour. Place the remaining flour in the large bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with a flat paddle or dough hook. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in 1⁄4 cup of the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and add 1 tsp. of the sugar. Using a fork, stir the water, yeast and sugar together gently, keeping the mixture in the well. (Don’t worry if a little flour becomes incorporated.) Let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, the 1⁄4 cup oil, the remaining 1⁄4 cup sugar and the salt with a fork. Add the egg mixture and the remaining 1⁄4 cup warm water to the flour mixture, and beat on low speed until incorporated. Then beat on medium speed until smooth and silky, 5 to 10 minutes. If it is too sticky, add the reserved 2 Tbs. of flour (or more, if necessary), 1 Tbs. at a time and continue to mix for a few more minutes.

Oil a large bowl and place the ball of dough in it, turning the dough so it is oiled all over. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place until the dough has almost doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour.

When the dough has almost doubled, punch it down and knead it by hand for 1 to 2 minutes, incorporating the optional raisins.

Roll the dough into a single rope about 34 inches long. Beginning at one end, wind the rope from the center of the spiral outward, keeping the center slightly elevated, like a turban. Tuck the end under.

Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment paper. Place the shaped dough on the prepared baking sheet, cover it with a slightly dampened cloth, and allow it to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush the top of the loaf with the egg wash. Bake until the top is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers, 25 to 30 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Rosh Hashanah Honey Cookies

Makes about 8 dozen cookies

2 large eggs

1⁄3 cup honey

1 cup sugar

2⁄3 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling hands

11⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1⁄2 tsp. baking powder

1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 Tbs. seltzer or club soda

41⁄4 cups all-purpose flour

parchment paper

Fit an electric mixer with the dough hook and beat the eggs, honey, sugar, oil, vanilla, baking powder, cinnamon and seltzer on medium-low speed for 15 minutes. Add the flour and mix until incorporated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for several hours, or as long as overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line several cookie sheets with parchment paper.

With oiled hands, form the dough into walnut-size balls. Place them 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Place two oven racks on the bottom third and top third of the oven. Bake two cookie sheets at a time, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back, halfway through the baking. Bake until golden brown, 14 to 17 minutes. Let cookies cool on the cookie sheets set on wire racks.

Repeat with the remaining dough. Cookies freeze well.

“Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” by Judy Bart Kancigor (656 pages, Workman, $19.95)