What started out as a labor of love when her son asked her to bake a few loaves of a certain kind of bread, has turned into Challah on the Hudson, a local name gaining some fame in Kingston’s foodie-verse.
Two years or so ago, Uptown mom Rhona Schiffres, who’s resumed a 20-year career in sales, found herself between jobs. As she was used to being busy and now had the free time to do some baking, the request for challah by her son Marc, a Kingston High grad now a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology, fell on willing ears. (Marc and Rhona used to bake loaves together when Marc was little and the two still collaborate whenever possible.)
Most of us are familiar with challah, a staple of Jewish cuisine, as a base for French toast at the local diner. Schiffres’ challah is a whole lot better than that — soft, rich, mouth-meltingly satisfying, all without the use of any milk-based products. (In kosher terminology, classically made challah is “parve,” meaning it contains neither meat nor dairy, making a lot easier to fit into Judaic dietary rules.)
As she got back into the groove of challah-baking, word of her prowess began to spread. The Schiffreses keep a kosher home and host many visiting rabbis. Her bread was an immediate hit; Rhona says rabbis would give up dessert so they could finish off a loaf.
A breakthrough came during the Jewish new year celebration of 2011, when Rhona and Marc cranked out 50 loaves over the space of a few days. “There was almost like a revolving door in my house at Rosh Hashanah of people coming in and picking up their bread — my whole dining room table was filled with different varieties.”
Soon enough, her friends and neighbors were hitting her up for challah and she was asked to provide loaves for a 100th birthday party and a dinner at her synagogue. Sensing she was onto something, Schiffres used her sales savvy to build up a repeat clientele.
Upon giving one to Diane Reeder of Queens Galley, Challah on the Hudson was truly born. Before trying it out herself, Reeder, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who’s opened her own Uptown business, KingstonCandyBar, gave it a thorough and knowing inspection for texture and other qualities found desirable in baked goods. She helped out with tips and encouragement.
It took the Schiffreses a weekend of brainstorming to come up with the name Challah on the Hudson, but once hit upon, it stuck. Photographer and designer Sheila Gilday came up with the logo, which can now be seen on Challah on the Hudson’s Facebook page.
Braided is better
The art of homemade challah, besides the perfect recipe, which Rhona and Marc have perfected over many tries, is in the braiding. If you walk into most bakeries, if they the loaves all look the same, they either come in frozen or are from a mold. With homemade handbraided challah, no two will ever look alike. The dough is rolled out and cut into three tubes, and folded together. “Basically you braid it like you braid a little girl’s hair,” Schiffres said. “But you want to do it carefully, so there are no open holes and it’s a tight braid.”
Schiffres, who grew up as Rhona Sultar in Woodstock and was a 1982 Onteora High grad, said the braiding is a meditative act in and of itself. “I can just be in another world when I’m braiding. It’s so therapeutic for me.”
Flavors are a more recent innovation, Schiffres said. There was some experimenting with amounts and ingredients; the flavors are not part of the dough itself but are woven in the loaves, like a jelly roll. Apples and cinnamon, chocolate chip and cheese (as in Danish) are already available; for this fall a pumpkin flavor is in development.
Ingredient control is key — top of the line stuff only. “When you cut corners, that’s exactly what you get: cut corners. … I only use the best ingredients.”
Currently, Schiffres is doing between 10 and 15 loaves a week, depending, and has a base of weekly followers. She’s not making a ton of money doing this, but she says that isn’t the point. The point is making new friends and spreading happiness via delicious food. “I wanted to share the joy of what I make with other people. … You have to love what you’re doing, and there’s nothing I like better than either watching someone eat one or coming back to me and saying, ‘Oh my god this is the best bread I’ve ever had.’”
A regular loaf goes for $5; specialty loaves, except for cheese, are $7. Cheese varieties (requiring a special batter) are $8. Schiffres said she needs a lead time of a couple days to get orders together. If interested (and you should be; seriously, this bread is really good) you can look Challah on the Hudson up on Facebook or call her at (845) 656-7424.