“There’s no substitute for baking bread on your own,” acclaimed D.C. pastry chef Alex Levin, says. “The flavor, that aroma you smell when you are baking — the way it fills your home with the presence of something special.”
It’s a scent that has followed him. His grandmother Martha Hadassah Nadich introduced him to it when he was young. After school, Alex would often head to her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, together they would pass the afternoons cooking and baking, particularly before Shabbat. “She was never a cook who had just one option for [Shabbat] dinner,” or dessert, he says. There was often a cake, dried fruit and nuts and sweets like chocolate chip squares, which Alex likens to blondies speckled with chocolate chips and topped with meringue. Those recipes and experiences “became part of my culinary spirit,” he says.
There was also always a simple three-strand challah. “In the 80s it wasn’t so easy to find challah in the store the way it is today,” he explains. So, Martha made her own. A custom Alex believes she started when she lived in Brookline, a Jewish area outside of Boston. She evolved into an accomplished homebaker, becoming a source of information for Craig Claibourne, the legendary food editor at the New York Times.
For her challah, she would start with three eggs, a third of a cup of this and that. Feeling her way through the recipe, Alex recalls, she would add flour until the dough reached the consistency she was looking for. The bread wasn’t always the same. “Sometimes it would taste almost like a cake,” Alex explains. Still, it always graced the Shabbat table.
That table was open to friends and colleagues of Martha and Alex’s grandfather Rabbi Judah Nadich, who after the Holocaust advised Dwight Eisenhower on issues facing those living in displaced persons camps.
By the time Alex was 10, Shabbat dinners in his family had switched locations from his grandparents’ home to his parents on the Upper West Side, with Alex preparing the meal. It was never his intention to go to culinary school, however. After graduating from Yale and working on Wall Street he planned to go to business school. A conversation with a friend shifted that thinking. “I had a lot of fear about changing my life around to be a chef,” he says. He went to the Culinary Institute of America’s pastry program anyway.
Challah reappeared in his life there, when he learned to braid a six-strand challah. “Every student needed to know how to pass the second part of our [pastry] program,” he says. As he worked his way up the ranks of restaurants like New York’s Jean-Georges and Cafe Boulud, he would spend his days off apprenticing in the kitchen at Breads Bakery, a bakery with its roots in Tel Aviv known for baker Uri Scheft’s challah.
Alex started to document and tweak his grandmother’s recipe, putting it down on paper. “I don’t like variables of uncertainty,” he says like a classic pastry chef. He added milk to give it richness and depth of flavor and a sweeter egg wash, spending a few years adjusting it until he reached a recipe he was satisfied with.
Today, he makes challah for French toast that he serves at brunch at Casolare, one of Michael Schlow’s restaurants, where Alex is the executive pastry chef of the group. “Challah is kind of designed for french toast,” he says. Dry it out a bit or let it grow stale on the counter and it will soak up the egg mixture perfectly.
Weekend brunch isn’t the only cause for Alex to bake challah these days. Each year around Rosh Hashanah, he hosts a pop-up bakery in D.C. While it’s only July, he’s already planning for this year’s. “Our goal...is probably about a thousand” loaves, he says.
And, challah has once again found its way into his home-cooking routine. A recent trip to Israel coincided with a move into a new condo where he wants to entertain. “I’m committed to having friends of mine come over for Shabbat meals,” he says. Like when he was little, “Shabbat is now a part of my life again.”