The Jewish year is filled with festivals, each with its own customary, hallmark food.
There is nothing more symbolic (or calorific) than sinking your teeth into a jelly-filled sufganiya on Hanukkah, munching matzah sandwiches on Passover or devouring poppy seed hamentashen on Purim. These momentous highlights of the year enrich our souls and our palates with their culinary fare.
Being diligently Jewish, however, requires exhaustive preparation for the great event. We have to “build ourselves up” way ahead of schedule so that we can reach the festival well practiced in the art.
This is why, the day after Simhat Torah, the store shelves are already laden with doughnuts; the day after Hanukkah, you can already find hamentashen in some bakeries; and, were it not for a rabbinic prohibition, we would probably start eating matzah the day after Purim (OK, perhaps not matzah, but certainly kneidlach).
All these relentless preambles ensure that we finally arrive at the great day highly prepared, but also totally daunted by the prospect of taking another bite of the festive food, which our wise ancestors intended to be the highlight of the festival.
There is, however, one period in the year, an almost two-month period, that is totally devoid of any festivals. This is the period between Simhat Torah and Hanukkah.
While the most fervent among us already begin the culinary preparations for Hanukkah during this period, those less devout perhaps use it as a respite and golden opportunity to lose a few pounds before the next onslaught.
Everyone has their favorite food. Some love spaghetti, others T-bone steaks, or, if you are vegan, perhaps a lentil salad. Regardless of what your favorite food is, I can guarantee you one thing. If you are served that same beloved food three times a day, every day for two months solid, you will eventually become so sick of it that even the thought of it will make you retch.
There is one food, however, that no matter how often you eat it, day in, day out, year after year, you will never tire of. No, I do not mean chocolate cake; I am referring to bread. There is something about the universal staple that people never seem to get enough of.
This phenomenon is quite unique in culinary social behavior. You would think that for a food to be so consistently attractive, it must be endowed with bells and whistles to excite and delight the palate. However, if you examine the staple daily breads in various countries and cultures – the French baguette, the Italian ciabatta, the Middle Eastern pita, etc. – what typifies these breads is their lack of bells and whistles, their simplicity. They are not something that you eat and afterward say “Oh wow!” They are simply tasty and satisfying.
The fact that we have something genetically encoded into our DNA that predisposes us to, and prevents us from tiring of, bread has confounded sociologists over the centuries and is simply something that “makes us human.” Not for nothing has bread been called the staff of life, because it has become associated with life itself, pure survival. Humans can survive without sufganiyot, without hamentashen, but not without bread.
Yes, it is nice to celebrate festivals, the warm ambience and bonhomie of family gathered round the table, but there is also virtue in the times of the year when there is no festival, the period of simple routine. Even these periods have their hallmark food – bread.
Poolish:1⅓ cups flour⅔ cup water (lukewarm)¼ tsp. instant dried yeast1 tsp. salt
Mix, cover bowl and leave to rise overnight for 12 hours.
Main recipe:1¼ cups flour3 Tbsp. rye flour¾ cup water (lukewarm)¼ tsp. instant dried yeast1 tsp. salt
Add main recipe ingredients to poolish mixture. Mix and knead for 12 minutes by hand (7 minutes in mixer on medium speed). Leave to rise for 1 hour. Punch down and shape into country-style loaf (round/oval etc.) on a baking tray. Leave to rise again for an hour and 15 minutes. Bake in oven preheated to 230° for 25-30 minutes until crust begins to brown.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (www.jewishbakingcenter.com), which specializes in baking and teaching how to bake healthy, traditional Jewish bread. He also manages the Showbread Institute (www.showbreadinstitute.org), which researches the biblical showbread.