Challah or Twisted Bread? Jewish Cooking, 19th Century Style

The 1871 Jewish Cookery Book offers dishes that Jews still eat today, including a recipe for 'Twisted Bread,' or challah; Joan Nathan offers an up-to-date adaptation of that old recipe.

In 1871, Esther Jacobs Levy, an English Jew from Philadelphia, published the Jewish Cookery Book, which was the first Jewish and kosher cookbook in the United States. To make clear what the book was about, the full title of the book was Jewish Cookery Book Or Principles of Economy, Adapted For Jewish Housekeepers, With The Addition Of Many Useful Medicinal Recipes, And Other Valuable Information, Related to Housekeeping And Domestic Management.

“We don’t know much about Esther Levy,” said Joan Nathan, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of Jewish Cookery Book, coming out next month as part of the American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Nathan did more research on Levy, whom she was always fascinated with, and discovered that an English woman, born as Esther Jacobs, was registered in the Philadelphia census of 1870. Her name does not appear in the 1880 census. Nathan suggests that she might have remarried, moved to another city or died. From what Nathan gathered, she believes Levy lived with her mother and worked as a shopkeeper. The shop was probably where she met people who shared their recipes and advice with her.

It is not clear how many copies were printed of that first edition, but Nathan doesn’t think this was a very popular book. “Everyone was trying to be American and not to do the Jewish thing,” she said. Levy, in her book, collected many local Pennsylvania Dutch recipes next to Jewish recipes of English, German and Sephardi origins.

The book is a wonderful read if you’re curious about the food and life of Jews in America at the time. It is interesting to see the dishes that we still eat today, like the challah, that Levy calls Twisted Bread. She explains in a very straightforward manner how to mix the yeast with lukewarm water, salt and flour and let it rise, a process that most cooks today still find intimidating. Then she continues to explain how to braid the bread. In the introduction, Levy talks some more about the bread we serve on Shabbat: “We must have the Shabbath food prepared on Friday; and it is customary to break off a piece of the dough of two loaves, which are made in commemoration of an ancient offering, and burn it, accompanying the action with a blessing.”

Joan Nathan’s challah recipe provides a detailed explanation for each and every step of the baking, but that’s not the only difference between her recipe and that of Levy’s. Nathan’s challah, as most modern challahs, includes eggs and a little sugar.

And you’re welcomed to try both recipes, more than a hundred years between them.