Making Jewish challah and Mexican tortillas for the first time

Happy New Year and challah there! Sorry, I had to get that out of the way before I start talking about challah and tortillas. Anyways … at the start of the holiday season, my friend Joey and I wanted to make the breads we grew up loving.

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She grew up in a Jewish family, where they baked fresh challah bread, usually eaten on Shabbat, a day spent resting. I’m Mexican and I grew up with fresh-off-the-stove tortillas de harina made by my Abuelita Chelo from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve (to be honest she makes it year-round). Both of these breads are made and shared during the holiday season, so we decided to make them for the first time!

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We’ve reached bread paradise. Photo by Joey Fisher

And, what better challenge than to learn our cultures’s breads by using our family recipes. Joey used her aunt’s recipe and I used my Abuelita’s recipe, which I thought she was going to take to her grave.

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Now, I am not the greatest cook in the world. I barely started enjoying cooking this year because a girl’s gotta eat. Also, I’m trying to cook more at home and save that “bread”. OK, enough puns in this blog post. But if one arises … OK, I’m done. Anyways, if I was going to do this right, I had to learn directly from my Abuelita. Thankfully, she was staying with my parents during the holidays so I could learn from her in person.

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Learning from my Abuelita, the best tortilla maker I know.

I was surprised that she wanted to teach me how to make tortillas! I honestly thought she didn’t want to show anyone her secrets, but she said no one ever asked her to teach them. During our tortilla-making session, I learned that my bisabuela (great-grandmother) Juanita made and sold tortillas out of her home in Chihuahua. Abuelita said the rich people from all over the city would come to buy them off her. Mind blown.

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Damn y’all, the pressure was on because apparently I was born with a tortilla-master gene. Thankfully, a little bit of that gene was passed down, and I made decent tortillas during my practice run. No tortillas were burned and no one died. Phew. That’s all I could wish for.

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Rolling tortillas ain’t no joke! Photo by Joey Fisher

Then came the hard part, I had go to Joey’s house and make the tortillas by myself, without Abuelita watching me. Tbh I was nervous. This was the first time I was cooking for my friend, and I can’t help that I’m an anxious perfectionist. I set a small intention before cooking, and called on my late bisabuela to help me in spirit.

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Puffy tortillas is a sign that you did it right! Photos by Joey Fisher

Making tortillas is definitely an art and science. If you don’t get the dough right or pretty round shapes, then the tortilla will won’t puff up on the stove. These steps are always nerve-racking!

As I was struggling to master the art of tortillas, I looked over at Joey and she was handling that challah!

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Braided bread is beautiful. Photo by Joey Fisher.

Once we were done baking and cooking, Joey brewed up coffee and I served up my tortillas with beans and Chihuahua cheese.

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Cheesin’ it up. Photo by Joey Fisher.

Joey and I learned a lot about each other’s cultures. It was eye-opening experience to learn about her upbringing because I’ve never had a Jewish friend before. I learned that Shabbat is a day where everyone chills and eats challah bread. This was actually the first time I ate challah bread! It was delicious! It had a subtle sweetness that I loved!

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I’m happy we did this together because it made me realize how important it is to learn our family members’ recipes, especially when those loved ones are gone. When we recreate those recipes it brings us closer. Food should be shared with the ones you love. What family recipes do you want to learn someday?

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Thank you for reading! Thank you to Joey’s aunt and my Abuelita Chelo for sharing such cherished recipes. We’ve included our families’ recipes for you to try out!

Go follow Joey’s Instagram and like her beautifully-made challah bread.

Abuelita Chelo’s Tortillas de Harina

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My tortillas were diverse. They came in all shapes and sizes.

Servings: 25 – 8″ tortillas

Ingredients:

2 lb of flour

1 1/2 tablespoon baking power

1 Cisco vegetable shortening stick

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups warm water

Directions:

  1. Knead the flour, baking powder, shortening stick, and salt in a large bowl with your hands (yes, it’s better that way).
  2.  Heat up the water to a lukewarm temperature (very important it’s not hot).
  3. Pour in the water little by little into the bowl.
  4. Knead the dough until all the dry ingredients are absorbed. Add water as needed. The dough should feel non-sticky and elastic (resistant, stretchy).
  5. When dough is ready, wrap it up in a plastic Ziploc bag and set aside in the bowl for 10 minutes. Cover dough with a cloth.
  6. Make 2-inch balls of dough and with a heavy rolling pin (add flour to it to decrease sticking) start making it into thin, 8-inch circles. Now this is a bit tricky doing it by hand and it takes practice. Basically keep stretching and rounding the edges as you roll.
  7. Once you have a nice, thin round-shaped dough, place the tortilla on a hot comal or griddle. Turn each side until pale brown spots appear.
  8. Serve with beans and cheese and enjoy!

One Bowl Challah Recipe

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Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup warm water

1 packet yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)

1/4 cup sugar (or honey)

1/4 cup canola oil (or olive oil)

2 eggs

2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt

4 1/2 cups flour

Directions:

  1. Pour the warm water into a mixing bowl and add the sugar (honey). The water should be quite warm at first so that the sugar (honey) can dissolve. Let the mixture cool off until the water feels lukewarm (barely warm).
  2. Add the yeast and wait 5 minutes or until the yeast has created a foamy layer on the top of the water. While the yeast is activating, mix the oil and kosher salt. Beat the eggs (gently) into this mixture.
  3. Mix the egg mixture into the water and yeast. Add the flour one cup at a time, stirring after each addition. The dough will form a ball when the correct amount of flour is added. It will be sticky but not soft, allowing you to take it out of the mixing bowl to knead it.
  4. Flour the counter and knead the dough for 5 minutes. The result will be a less sticky, more elastic (resistant, stretchy) dough. Form the dough into a ball, grease a bowl with oil (making sure to lightly coat the dough itself to prevent sticking), cover with a cloth, and place aside in a warm, draft-free environment. Wait for approximately 1 hour (the dough should expand, doubling or nearly doubling in size).
  5. Punch down the air-filled dough with your fists and again knead on the counter. Knead for 3-5 minutes and then divide the dough into three/six equal sections. (This can make one large challah or two smaller challahs). Roll these sections out into “snakes” and braid into a traditional loaf or six braided loaf. Cover and let rise another hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with canola oil spray, place the braided loaf carefully on top, and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. You may also egg wash the challah and top with sesame or poppy seeds.

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