Parties and celebratory meals have always been a part of cookbook writer and photographer Erin Gleeson and her husband Jonathan’s life together. When they started dating more than a decade ago, when Erin was in her 20s living in New York City, they hosted themed parties together. “One of my favorites was Back to the Future. He made a great Marty McFly,” she says.
There were also Shabbat dinner parties with friends. But they all went on hiatus when Jonathan left for rabbinical school in Israel. When he returned, so did the parties, with something new on the table: fresh baked challah made by Erin. At the time, baking the braided loaves was new and unfamiliar to her. Growing up on an apple orchard in northern California, she watched her grandmother bake a simple white bread, but challah was the first bread Erin baked herself. It was also one of the first Jewish customs she adopted as she started a path towards conversion. Growing their Shabbat tradition together, Erin explains: “I learned the words to Lecha Dodi [a hymn that welcomes Shabbat] on YouTube.”
The first challah recipe she tried, she thinks came from a friend of her sister-in-law. In the years since, she’s adapted it, ultimately writing her own recipe that yields one loaf instead of the common two, and she’s mastered a six strand braid. The tradition of Friday baking followed her and Jonathan when they moved to a fairytale cabin in the woods of Northern California, where she started her artful food blog The Forest Feast, which has grown into a series of cookbooks.
There, she keeps the recipe simple, making it in a stand mixer. “I can never remember the exact measurements,” she says. “So I have them written on a little notecard, Post-it thing that’s taped inside my kitchen cupboard. I just open it up and it tells me.”
On Friday evenings, the loaves are enjoyed by her and her two boys, with the whole family, or with Jonathan later in evenings, after he returns from synagogue. “Because Jon’s a rabbi, he works pretty much every Friday night,” she says. But, on the Shabbats when he’s free, “we always try to have people over — Shabbat is our favorite thing.”
For those dinners, Erin often cooks a vegetarian feast of salads (sans lettuce, which she’s not a fan of), reflective of her life in California and often inspired by her weekly farm box. In her rotation, there’s Moroccan carrot salad with chickpeas, quinoa, golden raisins and crunchy pepitas; farro dressed with sesame oil and studded with chunks of avocado; and kale with hazelnuts, pomegranate arils, pear, and pecorino.
Of course, all of them pair well with challah.