Name: Shannon Sarna
Profession: Editor at 70 Faces Media and cookbook author
How did you come to do what you do?
I am not a trained chef, nor do I have any kind of formal journalistic experience. I actually studied Middle Eastern politics and Spanish language & literature at Smith College, and after a short stint doing translation at a law firm and then working at a political lobby firm in Washington, DC, I went on to work as communications manager for Edgar M. Bronfman, of blessed memory. During the time I was working for Edgar’s foundation, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation based in NYC, I fell in love with using social media as a tool for storytelling and messaging. With the encouragement of my supervisor, I really dove into writing and social media strategy and launched a personal food blog, primarily as a writing exercise. After a year, I was approached by MyJewishLearning.com who wanted to launch a food blog, and so seven years ago in October 2011, The Nosher was officially born. Over the years my role has expanded within 70 Faces Media and The Nosher has grown into one of the farthest reaching Jewish food entities on the internet. I am very proud of the diversity of narratives that we share on The Nosher.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday or tradition?
Rosh Hashanah is my favorite holiday largely because I love the idea of an annual reset: a time to reflect on the year, and also to set intentions or goals for the coming year.
What’s your favorite food that you associate with Jewishness? least favorite?
Well that’s easy –challah. I know lots of people – women and men alike – for whom challah baking is cathartic and almost sacred. It doesn’t seem like a real Friday if I am not making homemade challah for my family. I also love love love sabich, the Iraqi-inspired street food that is popular throughout Israel. There are a few places in the U.S. you can get a decent one. And one of my other favorite Jewish foods is actually gribenes! There is just something so fun and naughty about fried chicken skin.
My least favorite Jewish food is canned gefilte fish. But there are very few foods I don’t like or appreciate in some way. But that sh$t just looks like wet dryer lint with a carrot on top. Why did American Jewish women decide that a sliced carrot would somehow make that look appetizing??? Baffling.
What is your earliest memory of being Jewish?
Passover at my grandma’s house and since I was one of only three grandchildren on my father’s side of the family, I was usually assigned the four questions.
How do you incorporate Jewishness into your daily life?
I joke that our family is, like, really Jewish. My husband is on the board of our synagogue, our children go to Jewish schools and I manage a website dedicated to Jewish food, so Jewishness definitely pervades our daily life in small and large ways. We are lucky to live in an incredibly welcoming, embracing, open-tented Jewish community in New Jersey where many of our friends all go to the same synagogue and really support one another in every part of our lives. I think being part of a strong community is a really, really Jewish concept.
What are you excited about in the coming months?
I love the start of the New Year, and I am excited for 2019. We just launched a new project with The Gefilteria called the Jewish Food City Guides; Putting Jewish Food on the Map which will share in-depth food guides for 12 different cities around the world. And I am so excited that my parenting-focused podcast with Jordan Horn is going to be released this month (in January). The name is "Call Your Mother" and you will be able to download it and subscribe via itunes, stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. Other than that, I am hoping to find a little more downtime with my girls this year!
Any tips or tricks for making challah that you can share?
For the Best Challah Ever, Avoid These 7 Classic Mistakes
Flour Matters. Not all flours are created equal, and buying a high-quality flour will make the difference in your dough. I use only King Arthur Bread flour for my challah baking. If you cannot find King Arthur flour, I would recommend buying a bread flour from another reputable company and please, please, please do not just buy the generic flour in the supermarket or whatever flour is on sale.
With Flour, Less Is More. One culprit of dense, doughy challah: using too much flour. Challah dough can be sticky, and so your natural inclination might be to keep adding flour until it’s not sticky any more, which may result in an overly dense challah once baked. Less is more, so before adding more and more flour while kneading, just add a dusting to take the stickiness out. When you have used the amount specified in the recipe, leave the dough alone, knead for 5 minutes and then just let it rise.
Location, Location, Location. Humidity, season, temperature and altitude can all greatly impact your challah baking. This also applies for other yeasted doughs like babka and bread. During warmer months and in more humid/warmer climates, your dough may require a little less water and a little more flour to achieve the same consistency. Same goes for dryer/colder climate or cooler months. And if you live at a higher altitude, the rules are completely different for you. So while a recipe may suggest 5 cups of flour, you need to learn what the challah dough should feel like. Bread baking is both an art and science, and it’s important to understand what your ideal dough consistency should feel like in your hands.
Always Do a Second Rise. “My challah turned out doughy and dense in the middle – why?” This is one of the most common questions I receive about challah baking from friends, family, readers and strangers on the street. When I ask, “Did you do a second rise?” I often get a sheepish “no.”
You want to allow your challah dough to rise for 2-3 hours for the first rise (depending on the humidity and outside temperature), then braid or shape it. Then allow it to rise another 30-45 minutes to ensure a light, fluffy and not dense or doughy loaf. But take care not to let that second rise go too long; otherwise your dough will actually deflate and flatten, leaving your strands undefined and the shape and consistency will not be right.
Check Your Oven Temperature. Another classic issue you might have with challah baking is your oven temperature. While your oven dial might be at 350 degrees, all ovens are different and the real temperature might differ from what your oven’s thermometer is reading. Invest in a small oven thermometer (they are cheap) and then you will know once and for all if your oven is accurate. You can then adjust the temperature accordingly.
Don’t Bake On a Baking Sheet. When I first started baking challah, my loaves would end up burnt on the bottom and raw in the middle. And I couldn’t figure out how to get a nice clean bottom. The secret is silicone baking mats. I swear by using silpats, which, while a pricy investment at around $20 each, have lasted me years and years of weekly challah baking. You can also use parchment paper, but whatever you do, do not place those precious challah loaves directly on a baking sheet. They might be difficult to take off, and will be even more prone to burning.
Practice Makes Perfect. Struggling with a six braid? Experimenting with some new flours? Whatever challah challenge you are working on, just remember that Rome was not built in a day and that great bread sometimes takes a lot of practice and precision. And as soon as you have mastered your flour ratio or braiding or oven temperature, the weather is going to change and you may have to adjust slightly. Be flexible, and be forgiving. Even the worst homemade challah is still delicious and perfect warm out of the oven. The joy of challah is making something warm, comforting and steeped in tradition for you and your loved ones, so at the end of the day, just enjoy. And try again next week.
Shannon Sarna is the Founding Editor of The Nosher and a contributing writer to
Kveller.com, both part of 70 Faces Media. Shannon grew up in upstate New York
immersed in performance and music and surrounded by diverse culinary
experiences: Her Sicilian-American mother loved to bake, her Ashkenazi-Jewish
father loved to experiment, and her grandfather was a food chemist who
patented Tang among other products. Her writing and recipes have been
featured in Bake from Scratch Magazine, Parade Magazine, Tablet Magazine, JTA
News, New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Vinepair and Modern Loss.
She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, MA with a degree in Comparative
Government and Spanish Language and Literature and lives in South Orange, NJ
with her husband, daughters and rescue dogs, Otis and Babka.
Shannon's first cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels and More, was released in September 2017 by Countryman Press.