We all know I’m capable of baking challah — very good challah, even — but the reality is that I view baking challah as a real pain in the ass and so I’m usually happy to pay for store-bought challah. For many years we’ve been paying about $4.50 or $5, I think, for a loaf of challah from a company called Bread & Chocolate. They’re out in Hamden, Connecticut, and most of what they produce is Italian-style loaves (delicious ciabattas) but when they started doing challah I rejoiced. The challah is everything I want in a challah. It’s a little sweet; it doesn’t have any raisins in it; it is good to eat on its own or as French toast or to use as sandwiches, even. It’s not dry and depressing; it’s rich and perfect, every week.
So the three of us were pretty bummed out when, three weeks ago, we were sitting down to Shabbat dinner and I sliced up the challah and when we went to eat, we all discovered that something was weird about the challah. It was my daughter who noticed it first. “The challah smells funny,” she said.
I sniffed. “It does smell funny,” I said. My husband, across the table from me, held his piece of challah to his nose. It was pretty funny: we’re not in the habit of sniffing our challah every Friday night, but this challah definitely warranted it. It was a “how is this challah different from all other challahs?” moment. “It smells like cookies,” said our daughter.
“Cookies?” I said wonderingly, sniffing again. She was right — it smelled like Italian cookies. My husband nailed it: “Anise,” he said. “It’s anise.”
Here’s the thing: we’re not anti-anise. But it’s the kind of flavor that has its time and place, and as any child — especially my child — will tell you, that time and place is not on Friday nights in our challah. We all ate those first slices of challah, but no one had seconds. And the rest of the loaf lingered in the bread box for days, which is not the norm. In the end, I threw it out, because it was so clear no one was going to eat it, and there was no point in converting it into breadcrumbs or something, because it’s not like anyone wants anise-scented meatloaf.
So the next week, Friday afternoon, we go to the store to get stuff for Shabbat dinner, and I pick up a loaf of Bread & Chocolate challah. We had talked it over and decided that probably the previous week’s challah had been baked in the same oven as a tray of cookies or some anise-flavored bread or something — that this was just a flukey thing that wouldn’t happen again. But when I picked up the bread from the rack at the grocery store, to be sure, I gave it a sniff, and damn if it did have that same anise smell. “What is going on?” I asked my daughter, and I held the bread for her to sniff. “It’s that same smell,” she said.
I carried the bread over to the cashier, a nice woman who used to work for an Orthodox family doing something or other, and who knows about Shabbat meals and keeping kosher even though she herself is not Jewish. I said, “I know I’m gonna sound crazy, but — has anyone come to you to talk about something weird with the Bread & Chocolate challah?” I held up the loaf. “I’m telling you, there’s something weird about the challah.” She looked at me, surprised. “No, no one’s said anything.” “Well, look — you know I’m not a crazy person, I’m one of your regulars — and the challah last week, it smells like those anise cookies you get in Italian bakeries, and this one does, too!” I held the challah out to her. She said, “I hate those cookies,” and then put her nose down for a sniff. “OH!” she said. “Oh, no no no.” She set the challah aside. “This happened last week too?” “Swear to God,” I said. “We threw away most of the loaf because it tasted so weird.”
“Oh jeez,” she said sympathetically. I felt bad: it’s not her fault that the challah’s gone all weird. “I don’t want to buy anise-scented challah,” I said apologetically. “I guess I’ll have to come up with a plan B.” “I’m gonna call them,” she said, also apologetic. “‘Cause I wouldn’t wanna buy that stuff either.”
We bought the rest of our groceries and headed home. “I guess we won’t do Shabbat tonight,” I said, “but I’ll bake challah next week.”
Today I set up dough for two loaves of challah, one for this week, one for next week. I mean, tomorrow I’ll go give the Bread & Chocolate challahs a sniff, but I’m not optimistic; I did email them to ask what the story is, and I haven’t heard back. It may be that no one’s read my email; it may be that someone read it and is going, “What the hell?” and it may be that someone read it and said, “Like I care” and I’ll never hear back.
In the meantime I guess I should start looking into creative challah recipes, ’cause I’m pretty sure I’ll be sick and tired of making the same loaf week after week with no variations unless I do something to rev things up a little. I’ll just make sure to avoid adding anise to the mix.