Here at Candleschtick, we love great food and great food stories.
We have a special soft spot for challah and all three of us have tried (with varying success) to bake the perfect loaf.
So, it was our pleasure to meet the talented, challah-baking Instagram star: Rabbi Vanessa Harper of @lechlechallah. Combining Torah study and thoughtful commentary with raised dough and expert braiding, Rabbi Harper is an educator in every sense of the word. We have enjoyed following her Instagram account highlighting her project and wanted to share her corner of the internet with our Candleschtick friends and family.
CS: Hello Rabbi Harper! Welcome to the Boston area. We’d love to hear a little about you and your challot.
VH: Thank you! I came to Boston a year ago from NYC, where I was studying to become a rabbi. Upon my ordination, I was lucky enough to start my rabbinate with a unique shared position as a rabbi and educator in two amazing communities: Temple Beth Elohim and Gann Academy. My husband (who is also a cantor and educator at TBE) and I love being in this area, though we're still adjusting to no longer living around the corner from the world's best bagels!
While I was in rabbinical school, I accidentally became famous in a small corner of the Jewish world as @lechlechallah (a pun on the third weekly Torah reading, Lech Lecha). I had always loved to bake, but steered clear of bread, because I found yeast very intimidating. But when I moved to Jerusalem for my first year of school, and found myself without my trusty stand mixer, I decided to give bread baking a try, and challah seemed like a logical place to start. I got over my fear of yeast and learned to make lovely four- and six-stranded braids. In my second year of school, in NYC, it so happened that my classmates were gathering for a shabbat program in the week that we read Parashat Noach (which includes the story of Noah and the flood, and the rainbow that signified God's promise not to destroy the earth by water again). I had seen all of these cool rainbow challot floating around the internet, and I thought I'd give it a try and bring one to the gathering. When I did, one of my teachers asked me, "Vanessa, do you match your challah to the parasha every week?" While at the time I certainly did nothing of the sort, something possessed me in that moment to answer "Yes!" and then I spent the rest of the year following through on that crazy response. Every week that year, I created a new challah design, interpreting a verse or two from that week's Torah reading in an edible, artistic form, eventually adding commentary along with the images that I posted to Instagram. This personal project picked up so many followers that I continued into the next year, using the months of the Jewish year and the holidays for inspiration. I signed with a publisher to create a book version, which is coming out soon, and started teaching classes, sharing the idea that studying and interpreting Jewish texts can be playful, creative, hands on, and accessible to everyone.
CS: As a Rabbi at Temple Beth Elohim and and Jewish Studies faculty member at Gann Academy… AND an author, tell us how you fit baking into your busy life.
VH: Well, truthfully, I don't get to do so much baking these days. I started the @lechlechallah project over four years ago when I was a rabbinical student with a very different schedule! I do teach challah shaping classes, which is where I still get to play with more elaborate shapes. Otherwise, when I have a bit of time to bake, I tend to shape simpler challot-- it's great meditative self-care. But as a tip for those of you who do want to squeeze challah baking into a busy week: making dough on Thursday night, refrigerating overnight, and then shaping it the next day tends to make the time commitment much more managable; and the longer, colder rise makes for more flavorful dough that is sometimes easier to work with as well. Alternatively, when well-wrapped, baked challot freeze very well; pop a defrosted challah in the oven for a few minutes before dinner on Friday night and no one will know you didn't make it that afternoon.
CS: We enjoy your beautiful designs. What inspires these creations?
VH: All of my challot are inspired by verses of Torah or themes from the Jewish calendar; I use challah dough as a medium for giving shape to the ideas that stand out to me from the page. One of the things I love about working with challah dough is that it is a material that has many ideas of its own-- sometimes, I start to shape with a particular image in mind, and other times, I let the dough lead me. Sometimes those designs end up being the most interesting!
CS: Outside of baking, do you have other Jewish-food favorites?
VH: I love a good bagel, and the classic NYC Jewish deli staples-- there's nothing like a bowl of matzo ball soup, lean corned beef on rye, a half-sour pickle and a Cel-Ray soda!
CS: Would you tell us about your upcoming book?
VH: Of course! The book is called Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year Through Challah. It features chapters for every weekly Torah portion, month of the Jewish year, and major holiday, and each chapter includes a unique challah design (including many new designs that are not on Instagram!), a short commentary, prompts for study and creative exploration, and a kavanah (intention). Of course, there are also recipes and techniques for creating your own unique challah designs! The publication date is still in flux (the publishing industry is having supply issues), but keep an eye out for it in the coming months.
CS: Lightning Round:
- Applesauce or sour cream? Applesauce
- Favorite Yiddish word? Chutzpah
- Charoset-and-matzah-pavlova? Yes or No. No (though I so appreciated that moment on GBBO!)
- Favorite holiday? Simchat Torah
Visit Vanessa on Instagram at @lechlechallah
Photo Credit: Rick Bern
Other photos used provided by Vanessa Harper and @lechlechallah.