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Challah-baking workshop livens Kew Gdns. seniors

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With the Jewish holiday Purim two weeks away, baker Devorah Heller addressed a roomful of senior citizens and homemakers at the Atria Retirement Residence in Kew Gardens last week, demonstrating how to make and braid dough for the traditional Jewish challah bread.

"I have been teaching and inspiring women all over the country to practice this tradition that has been neglected," said Heller, with a bag full of dough, a mixing machine and challah-making ingredients spread out before her. "There is nothing like the aroma of challah baking. It is perfume of the soul."

Challah bread is a braided bread that is normally eaten on the Jewish sabbath and during special holidays. Traditionally, four loaves are baked before sundown on Friday so that two can be consumed on Friday night and two on Saturday.      

Challah bread requires seven ingredients, signifying the seven days of the week, Heller explained. The eighth ingredient is love.

The first step to making challah dough is to combine yeast with sugar, said Heller, scooping out a cup of sugar, and dumping it in the mixing bowl. The next step is to sift the flour into the mixture, and to add eggs. Then turn on the mixing machine, and add the last ingredients: oil, kosher salt and water.

With her mechanical mixer, the dough is ready in about 12 minutes, said Heller, passing out a sample of dough for her audience to feel.

"The machine kneads and kneads until you get a fine, velvety, smooth supple dough," said Heller. "After 12 minutes, the consistency of the dough is marvelous."

Kneading can also be done by hand if the baker does not have a mixing machine, Heller added.

After the dough has been mixed, it should be left alone in a bowl or a plastic bag for an hour to allow it to rise, said Heller. Then, before the dough is separated and braided, it is traditional to bless it.

"This is good. I'd like to see really how to make a good challah," said Bernice Orliss, who found out about the workshop through a flier distributed at her senior center, the Young Israel Senior Center in Kew Gardens Hills. "I tried it once and it didn't come out good."

After the blessing, Heller demonstrated how to separate the dough into six strips, and braid the strips by using the "two by four" method. She then passed out individual portions of dough and pans to members of the workshop so that they could braid small loaves of challah to be baked at home.

"I thought this was very informative and stimulating. It gave me a new something to do," said Olive Robinson, who has lived at Atria for a little over a year. "Bread baking has always been a family treasure for us. I've grown up with bread baking, but I've never done this kind of baking before."

Although Atria provides three restaurant-style meals and a cocktail hour for its residents every day, residents are also welcome to use the center's "country kitchen" 24 hours a day to prepare their own food, said Bella Kirschner, a representative of the assisted living center.

The challah workshop was part of an effort to bring more hands-on activities to residents of Atria and the surrounding community, said Kirschner.

Binah Kasirer, 37, a teacher at an Orthodox Jewish girls' elementary school who has seven children, said she would definitely try her hand at challah again after picking up tips from the workshop.

"I learned to braid better, the order of ingredients, the importance of sifting the flour and tips for making it rise better," said Kasirer. "I also learned that you should never freeze the dough."

Kasirer said she usually buys challah for the sabbath every week, and uses leftovers for turkey stuffing, latkes, French toast or bread pudding.

"This is really fun," said Renee Iseson, who found out about the workshop when she met Kirschner at a fund-raising dinner for her daughter's school. "It's much easier than I thought. I'll definitely be making a lot more challah."

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

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