Diffident and self-conscious, Hannah Schifman hides behind a thicket of black curls. But ask her about her challah and she blooms with confidence, becoming, if not chatty, forthcoming. Why shouldn’t she be confident? If you made challah like hers, you’d be as proud as a peacock.
Or you should be: The golden crust has just the right sheen, nothing dull or taut going on there, and the interior is pillowy and moist, but sturdy. A superior challah like that isn’t so easy to come by.
New York is a city full of challah, but most of it is mediocre. Some is outright bad — stiff, desiccated, and bland. Some isn’t challah at all; it’s tasty, but basically challah-shaped brioche.
Schifman’s is an anomaly, and she worked hard to get it there.
Maybe you’re expecting a tender narrative about watching her Bubby make it and inheriting an heirloom recipe. But no: Her grandmother doesn’t do challah. Schifman developed her recipe through trial and error, probing all the qualities in a loaf she doesn’t like so she could figure out how to achieve the opposite.
“I knew what I didn’t want,” she says. “Absolutely no dry challah. It needed to tear; it needed a crust, but not a crunchy crust that sometimes accompanies the dryness, and I needed it to have the sweetness of honey that I always loved about challah, and the fluffiness.”
She taught herself in order to “feel a sense of connectivity” with her grandparents and their son, her father, whom she lost when she was only 17-months old. They are the Jewish side of the family and live in Kansas City. She and her younger siblings were raised by their mother, a surgeon who converted to Judaism for her late husband.
Schifman was born in Germany, where her mother was stationed for work. Soon after her father’s death, they relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where they spent the next eight years. From there, it was on to rural Kansas to be closer to Schifman’s father’s relatives in his absence.
“My family was the only Jewish family in Great Bend,” she recalls. “There were 16,000 people in that town when we moved.” They didn’t have any services to go to or a congregation to join.
Not long after, they moved again, this time just to Topeka where there was some semblance of a Jewish community, if a tiny one of 200 families. There was even a high school youth group — of six, and Schifman was at least able to have her Bat Mitzvah, three years late, sharing it with her younger sister.
Finally, as an undergrad at the University of Kansas, she found her people. “Why I have had this strong inclination to be tied to my Judaism is kind of filling a void,” she says. Making challah is part of that, and it started in 2016 while she was there.
She went with challah, she says, because it was “low-hanging fruit.” The process is accommodating and open-ended; there’s no “right” way of making it. (Of course, its ceremonial function and “history of religious significance” was another reason it spoke to her.) In the end, though, as forgiving as her chosen hobby was, it required a major investment of time and discipline to get it where she wanted.
Two years after she took up with challah, she graduated from K.U. and not in baking or Jewish studies; her majors were art history and psychology. and she immediately left for grad school, in Florence, to get a Masters in museum studies. In May of 2019, she returned home to Topeka to work on her thesis. The following January, she went to New York to start an internship at the Guggenheim Museum. Less than two months later, her gig cut short by the pandemic, she was back in Kansas.
And so Schifman found herself with an advanced degree, in a field without any job openings in sight. But she still had challah on her side, and by now she felt good enough about it to turn it into an employment opportunity.
In October 2020, she announced the launch of “Challah by Hannah” and, empowered by her bread, marched into a Topeka bakery and landed a three-month stage, so she’d have some professional kitchen experience.
For the next year, Schifman was a full-time challah maker, producing a manageable number of challahs at a steady rate every week in addition to filling larger orders for her temple for things like fundraising events.
In addition to her traditional loaves, she introduced a few surprises – for example, a challah shot through with 65 percent Guittard chocolate that’s like a cross between a pain au chocolat and a babka, but possibly better than both; a tomato challah; the fan-favorite cinnamon-sugar challah, and her mom’s favorite, a challah braided with fresh herbs. The latter, they like to eat for dinner sometimes, dipped in olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
Schifman eventually scored a museum job. Unfortunately, for Topeka, said job was in New York, at (appropriately) the Museum of Jewish Heritage. From there, she moved on to the International Center for Photography where she currently works.
As for the challah? She quickly realized baking out of a tiny New York City apartment kitchen wasn’t so optimal, or plausible, especially if she wanted to maintain the quality of her loaves. But she kept baking for colleagues, friends and visiting family. She’s done a few pop-ups, too.
And she’s slowly starting to get Challah by Hannah up and running again. Her timing is perfect. The high holidays are nearly upon us, and she’ll be taking limited orders for Yom Kippur — first come, first served. (You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive pre-ordering info before the rest of the world, or else follow her on Instagram.)
Good luck getting one—you might want to chant an extra prayer. They’re going to go faster than you can say “Shanah Tovah.”