The rules for becoming a great musician don’t differ much from becoming a great baker. “Just try it until you get good at it” says Shannon Sarna, food writer and editor of the Nosher about the seven types of dough in her new cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker. She’s on a mission to give others the confidence to leap into Jewish baking, master the doughs and make them their own, just as she did.
Sarna is the daughter of a Jewish father and an Italian mother who died much too young. Baking was therapeutic for her after her mother’s death. She especially enjoyed baking with her younger siblings, as it provided them a joyful respite from an otherwise trying time. She described these times to me as “silly and fun,” singing and dancing in the kitchen while baking.
She comes from a family of musicians, and was involved in musical theater until her mother’s passing. In some way, baking filled that part of her, providing an outlet for her creative energy. She was not just singing in the kitchen with her siblings, though, but playing with theme and variation.
She begins the book with challah, which is how she began her baking journey with her siblings, and then moves on to babka, bagels, rugelach, hamantashen, pita and matzah. Challah recipes represent the greater portion of the book, with many variations, both sweet and savory. Sarna’s connection to challah is palpable; she sees it as a part of exploring her Jewish side and her experimentations with different flavors veering off from the traditional as an expression of her “legitimate Jewish identity” that is influenced by the backgrounds of both her parents.
Her message is that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail a little, but to practice making challahs and other baked goods, and we’ll get better. As she says in her introduction to the challah section of the book, “even the worst challah is still delicious and intoxicating.”
She doesn’t leave us dangling on our own in the kitchen, though. She provides clear and detailed instructions not only in the recipes, but in the introduction to each of the seven types of dough, telling us things like “How the Dough Should Feel,” “Rising” and “Essential Tools.”
Each section also has brief interludes with recipes for complements to the baked goods, such as gravlax for the bagels, or, my favorite, savory babka croutons to put on a salad.
One of the highlights of the book is the inclusion of excellent visual cues for shaping each type of dough. There are photos showing how to shape all seven doughs, nowhere more helpful than in the challah section where there is a series of photos depicting multiple stages of braiding each style, including basic and six-strand challahs, three- and eight-strand round challahs, stuffed challahs and challah knots.
When I talked to Sarna about these photos, which would seem to provide a novice baker with just the handholding one might want, she explained that this was an attempt to translate other forms of food media such as food videos into book form, as a means of taking the mystery out of these doughs.
Sarna’s joy and can-do attitude about baking, coupled with her creative flair, shine through from the pages of the book. She provides recipes for the basic methods for each dough, and then adds a variety of whimsical options—Challah Dogs, Funfetti-style Birthday Cake Babka, Spicy Pizza Rugelach—that make practicing these doughs more fun. She wants us to experiment and practice, be creative and have a great time riffing along the way.