September 21, 2020

A baker’s hopes for the Jewish New Year start with a round challah

Like many other small, independent business people in this pandemic year, Elise Richer is tired.

She has been forced to rethink many aspects of her homey Tin Pan Bakery in the Nasons Corner neighborhood of Portland, from its packaging and pricing, retail sales and recipes to its menu options and online ordering system.

She has applied for loans, and she has lost staff – one “awesome” full-time employee who left for something more secure and one part-timer. Now it’s down to her and a single part-timer, Lindsey, who comes in to decorate the cookies and cakes that Richer bakes herself.

At 4 years old, Tin Pan Bakery was finally hitting its stride, getting steady birthday cake orders, a reliable wholesale business, and regulars who came for the unusual knishes and the old-fashioned cookies (molasses-ginger, nutella rugalach, sugar cookies …) that looked and tasted like something your blue-ribbon baking grandmother might keep in the cookie jar.

Then, kaboom – the coronavirus.

Richer’s wholesale orders disappeared overnight. St. Patrick’s Day, normally hectic (corned beef and cabbage hand pies, Irish whiskey cakes, green icing everywhere), was a washout. “I had ordered a lot of cabbage. I was trying to get the staff … to take some home. The staff was like, ‘Thanks, we’re all set.’” Easter was no better.

“Passover was the saddest Passover ever,” said Richer, who is Jewish and has carved out a nice niche in Jewish specialty baked goods. Normally, she sells toffee matzoh, coconut and almond macaroons, flourless brownies and sponge cake for the seven-day spring holiday. This year, “I didn’t do anything.”

Sheet cake orders for graduation parties – are you kidding? What parties?

To know when the bread is done, Richer prefers to take its temperature. Challah is done at 190 degrees, she says. Richer is standing in the small kitchen of her small, well-organized bakery. She has two ovens but no stove. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SECOND SHIFT

Like many other parents in this pandemic year, Elise Richer is tired.

She is divorced, sharing custody of two teenage boys, in ninth and 10th grade, with her ex-husband, though they spend more of their time with her. Since March, the boys have been home 24/7. Without football, without friends, without on-campus school, without summer camp, they have struggled to stay motivated, she said. No surprise, they prefer playing video games and watching YouTube to buckling down to Zoom classrooms.

“They are right in the middle of egotistical, aggravating teen,” Richer said, quickly adding, “which is developmentally appropriate.” That provoking I’m-cool-and-mom-is-dumb stage that any parent of an American teen knows.

When a Press Herald photographer watching her braid challah bread in her small bakery kitchen earlier this month kvells over his “incredibly responsible and independent” teens, Richer turns to him and says jokingly, “OK, I don’t like you.”

If her boys are struggling, so is their mom, who often rides her bike the 2 miles to the bakery from her home. How to monitor them, supervise them, worry over them, while at the same time trying to find the mental space and the money to adapt her small business – tucked into a strip mall at the busy juncture of Capisic Street and Brighton Avenue – to outlast a pandemic that upends lives and schedules week to week. Richer’s to-do list is a mile long.

“It’s just a lot,” she says, sighing.

Richer pulls apart the freshly baked challah. Her challah recipe calls for seven egg yolks plus bread flour to give it a little chew. She likes to add a little whole wheat flour, too. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

NEW BEGINNINGS

The challah loaves are round, a special shape for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which this year begins on Friday evening. The holiday ushers in the High Holy Days, a 10-day period that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and that Jews consider the most sacred time of the year. The loaves are round, and often dotted with raisins, as Richer’s are, to represent any number of things, including the crown of God, the cyclical nature of years, and wishes for a sweet new year.

A sweet new year would sure be nice.

Richer’s love is baking. Before she launched Tin Pan Bakery, she baked at home, selling her goods at farmers markets and to wholesale accounts. Decorating her cakes and cookies has never been her thing. For that, she relies on Lindsey Torrey, whose enthusiasm and skill she openly admires.

But challah is different. Observant Jewish women bake it every Friday for the sabbath, and that round loaf is an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah table.

“I’m usually less concerned with how stuff looks,” Richer says. “I want this to look nice. I taught Sunday school at Bet Ha’am (in South Portland) for first graders for about six years. We talked so much about shabbat (Hebrew for sabbath). ‘You are supposed to get dressed up. You’re so lucky you have a holiday every week.’ I don’t want the holiday to be ruined by a dinky-looking challah.”

Richer hopes to offer the bread for sale for Rosh Hashanah, also apple crisp and apple cake; the fruit is traditional for the holiday. It is early September, and on top of everything else, she is trying to figure out her holiday sales plan. “All this is stuff I am going to try to be doing in the next two weeks, in theory.”

In past years, Tin Pan Bakery hasn’t always offered baked goods for Rosh Hashanah, because the timing can be tricky depending when the holiday falls. Attending services at Bet Ha’am to celebrate the new year is important to her, “especially with my kids as teenagers. Their enthusiasm for going to synagogue has dropped a lot. It has to be ‘No, we all go (to synagogue) on holidays. It’s not an option to opt out. This is important.’

“That’s how you are who you are,” she continues. “Bet Ha’am means ‘House of the People.’ You have to go there to make sure there is still a community. It’s also weird because I don’t even know what the holidays will be like. I think we are going to have to be in the parking lot? Or a Zoom service? You’re used to being there with everyone together, saying everything together. Usually, we’re all starting over together.

“Well, we’re still doing that, just one by one. It’s the best we can do this year. Isn’t that part of Judaism? The continuity? There are terrible years, there are good years.”

‘GOTTA KEEP GOING’

Richer applied and got a PPP loan. She intends to apply for a new state relief program, too. She is looking to hire a few part-timers (“because I just don’t know. I don’t want to be responsible, to say to someone, ‘Yes! Here’s your full-time job. Oh, by the way, business has dropped off a cliff. Now you don’t have a full-time job”). She’d like to reopen for walk-ins, at least to a small degree, later this month; since mid-March, Tin Pan has been open for pre-orders only.

The new menu she is mulling will be geared to grab-and-go. No more selecting a single cookie from the glass-and-brass case. Instead, pick up a carton of apple crisp for six, or knishes for four. She knows she needs to put her foot down about special orders of items that aren’t even on her menu and to be less accommodating to customers about pickup times. Those things cost her money she can’t afford. But refusing doesn’t come easily to her or match her vision of Tin Pan as a bakery deeply embedded in its neighborhood.

Hard as the pandemic has been, though, Richer said it’s been easier than launching the business in the first place.

“Everyone is in the same boat. It’s not just me and I made some dumb decision. Even these great places are struggling, the people I really respect, so that feels better.

“The first year I owned a business, every time something went wrong, I couldn’t believe it. Now I know something is going to go wrong, and we’re just going to deal with it. The first summer we were open, my niece was staying with me. My dog suddenly got sick and died. One of the ovens stopped working, the freezer stopped working, and I had a new person start who had to be trained on everything.

“OK. This is what it’s like to run a business. You can’t just stop. You can’t just say, ‘I am not doing this anymore.’ Anyone who has been in this business has had a week like that, where five things went wrong all at once. Your purveyor didn’t bring what they were supposed to bring. Your line cook walked out. A customer had a heart attack in your front room. These things just happen.

“That’s the thing – in business and in being a parent, there is this momentum. Even if you screwed up your parenting this week, they are still here next week. Even if you messed up your decision on the business this week and your sales plummeted, well, you have to be open next week because someone is picking up their birthday cake. You gotta keep going and make the next birthday cake.”

And the next loaf of bread.

To give it sheen, Richer brushes the braided challah with egg wash before it goes into the oven. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rosh Hashanah Challah

Richer puts an unusually high number of egg yolks in her challah, a recipe she has tinkered with over years. “I don’t understand challah recipes that don’t have a lot of eggs or egg yolks,” she said. “I definitely put more egg yolks in mine than I used to because I just like it more that way. We also have a lot of egg yolks here because we make our buttercream with egg whites. You can definitely swap out some of the yolks for a whole egg. But it’s supposed to be a special rich bread. I usually put some whole wheat flour in mine because I like the taste. Just a little bit. You don’t have to. You know challah is a weird thing because everybody grows up with theirs and they want it exactly the way they had it. You really can’t replicate exactly what someone had at their grandma’s house.”

Makes 2 loaves

1 cup raisins (optional)
1¼ cups warm water
1 tablespoon yeast (instant or active)
5 tablespoon olive oil (can use half butter if it’s OK to include dairy)
7 egg yolks or 1 egg plus 4 yolks
2/3 cup sugar
5½ to 6 cups bread flour (can include a small amount of whole wheat flour or other whole grain flour if desired)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1½ teaspoons table salt)
1 egg, beaten

First check your raisins (if using): If the raisins are dry, place them in a bowl and pour some very hot water over them. Let them sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate while you prepare the rest of the recipe. After 15 minutes, drain the raisins and spread them out on a kitchen or paper towel to dry before using.

To make the dough, place the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl. Whisk to combine. Add the oil (and soft butter in pieces, if using), egg yolks and sugar, and mix well. (If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment on low speed.)

Add 5 cups of flour and the salt and mix again to combine. If using a mixer, switch to a dough hook after the flour has been somewhat mixed. Begin kneading and every 20-30 seconds, assess the dough and add 1-2 tablespoons more flour if the dough appears too sticky.

The total kneading time should be 6-8 minutes. The dough should be soft and smooth but not too sticky to handle. Turn the dough out onto floured counter. If using raisins, pat them dry (if they have been rehydrated). Press the dough into a flat circle and sprinkle raisins over. Then roll dough back up, and knead by hand for another minute or so.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise at room temperature until the dough has doubled. This will take 2-4 hours, depending on the ambient temperature.

When the dough has finished rising, punch it down. The dough can be shaped and baked now, or wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated for a day or two if preferred.

To shape the dough, divide into 2 equal parts. Then divide each half into 4 equal parts. Let dough rest on counter for 5 minutes. (Cover dough with dish towel to prevent it from drying out.)

After the dough has rested, shape each of the 8 parts into a long rope. These should be at least 12- to 14-inches long, and can be even longer. Arrange 4 of the ropes into a tic-tac-toe style board. You will then weave the ropes over each other, alternating directions. (This is best explained in a video; there’s one on YouTube by Jamie Geller.) Repeat this process for the other loaf.

Once the loaves have been shaped, place them on a sheet pan, and cover with a dish towel and let rise until the dough is nice and puffy. To test its readiness, press the dough with your fingertip. If the dimple refills quickly, the dough is not ready. If it refills slowly or not at all, it’s ready to be baked. This may take under an hour or more than 3 hours, depending on the room temperature as well as whether the dough had previously been refrigerated.

To bake the bread, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the loaves with the beaten egg. (If you like a very dark sheen, you can egg wash the loaf immediately after shaping, and then a second time before baking. To make it very shiny, add a pinch of salt to the egg wash.) Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate your sheet pans and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Bake for another 10-20 minutes, until loaves are baked through. (The best way to tell if they are done is to insert a thermometer into the center of the loaf. If the temperature is 190 degrees, the bread is done.


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