The stories behind the parchments

Parchment is a new installation that I created for the FENTSTER window gallery in downtown Toronto. This artwork grew out of my new love of baking challah for Shabbat. I was fascinated by the unexpected and unique markings the challah would create while baking on parchment paper. I started saving my parchment papers then put out a call for others to send me theirs. The communal aspect of baking challah for Shabbat and the memories that Shabbat creates is a central theme of this artwork as baking challah goes beyond physical nourishment. Whether you’re at home making one for your family, or at a huge bake-along gathering, you are part of a collective of people across the world doing the same thing, with different recipes and traditions, but with the same intent.

I couldn’t have anticipated the huge reaction from the community surrounding this project. I’ve received messages and parchments from people around the world with recipes and stories about what makes baking challah and celebrating Shabbat meaningful to them. Many people baked their first challah for this project, some have now turned into weekly bakers, creating traditions within their own families that will hopefully live on for generations. We also held an online bake-along event in March which had such a great turnout. (You can watch and bake with me any time here.) This event was the first time I baked with anyone other than my partner, Noah. Creating this artwork has had an impact on people that I never expected, and on myself too, and I feel grateful for it. I’ve gathered some of the stories people sent me—like their parchment papers, there is something individual and similar about their challah stories. In the coming months, I’ll keep sharing these stories and the parchment papers I have gathered on Instagram.

 

You can also follow me @Robonto and see more of my artwork at Robonto.com. Follow the installation on Instagram @ParchmentProject and @fentster_gallery for more stories and photos, and come by the FENTSTER gallery day or night to view the installation.

— Rob Shostak

Parchment by Rob Shostak at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum.
Parchment by Rob Shostak at FENTSTER. Photo by Morris Lum.
Parchment by Rob Shostak at FENTSTER. Photo by Rob Shostak.

Calgary, Alberta

Why I started baking challah: pandemic. Seriously.

I live in Calgary and I was chatting with my dad (who lives in Vancouver) at the beginning of the pandemic about the sourdough craze. I like sourdough, but not enough to make it all the time. My dad was telling me about a friend of his who started making challah by scratch, and claimed that it wasn’t so hard. I thought, if his friend can make challah, so can my dad (who has zero kitchen experience). I told him that I would call him the following Thursday morning and we would bake a challah together on FaceTime. It was a slow process at first: measuring out the ingredients, pouring everything in the bowl, mixing, and comparing what our dough looked like. But, we also had some great conversations. My son had just turned two and would try to help. I’d have him stand next to me and pour in the flour, while talking with zaida. It was actually really fun that first time.

Photo of Tafber’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

So, I told my dad I would call him two weeks later to do another bake. And then again, we still had so much fun that I decided to call him the following week, and so on and so forth. We soon realized that the amount of challah we were making was too much for each of us to eat during the week, so we started our own mitzvah project by gifting loaves to friends in our communities. For the past two years, I have made two (or more) challah loaves every week. I gift them to friends and neighbours, Jewish and not, people who have seen my Instagram posts, people in need and friends who just need that extra love. It has become my passion project, and I don’t ask for anything in return. Now I get excited about baking every week and for the chat with my dad (though we speak more than once a week). It’s truly the best thing to have come from this pandemic. I just had my second baby and my parents came to Calgary. My dad has been baking challah on his own. They taste even better when he is here with me.

Photo of Krauss’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

Semi-Finalist on The Great British Bake Off in 2021

Brighton, England

I started to make challah regularly for over a year every Friday. My mother-in-law had fallen ill, and my challah saw her through treatment. I learnt so much by making challah every week! The recipe I used is the “Eggless Water Challah” from Inside the Jewish Bakery by Stan Ginsberg and Norman Berg.

Elena Polyak-Duke

Toronto, Ontario

I am a wife, mom, and teacher. I also bake challah as a hobby. I started attending challah-bakes in my community hosted once a month by the organization AISH starting in 2016. I am not a cook or baker and not particularly a “kitchen” person but a group of friends were the organizers. I loved it so much and to this day enjoy making challah because of that group. Until then I mostly purchased store-bought challah. I never understood why people baked their own. I do now. The monthly AISH group has continued to meet regularly and during the pandemic we met online.

Since March 2020 I bake four to five challot every Friday and post inspiring words and pictures. I pray for loved ones and for anyone who asks. My daughter and husband help me deliver these challot every week. I do this on my

Photo of Polyak-Duke’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

own time and from the heart. It is extremely fulfilling and connects me to the power of prayer. This has even inspired my husband and sons to attend Mens’ Challah Bakes held once a year in Toronto. I have also participated in Mega Challah Bakes in the city with over 1,000 women as well as smaller intimate gatherings held to bring a refuah shlemah, or good health and healing, for those who are ill.

Photo of Nostrati’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

Toronto, Ontario

​​November 25, 2016. Montreal. I was in the city to attend the fall consultation of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) for my work with the Refugee Law Office of Legal Aid Ontario, working closely with refugees at various stages of their trajectory. I took a break from the afternoon sessions to look for a book at the Jewish Public Library. I found the book but was side-tracked by an impromptu exhibition of material the library had curated mere weeks after Leonard Cohen’s death. Among them a copy of The Spice Box of Earth, with a red WITHDRAWN-RETIRÉ stamp on the front page. The stamp was then crossed out with rough pencil strokes, an unofficial, yet pronounced revocation of the official withdrawal. Leafing through the pages, I was distracted yet again, this time by the smell of freshly baked bread. It was Friday and the

foyer outside the library suddenly became a bazaar for Shabbat provisions. I picked a challah, not my first but the first procured on the premises of a library. And one whose taste stayed with me to this day. Could it be that it was a truly well-made challah or the way I happened upon and remembered it? I’ve been meaning to reimagine that scent-memory since but didn’t until recently at the challah bake-along organized by FENTSTER and led by Rob Shostak as part of his Parchment Project. I’ve been working on an essay on bread for some years and feel the online gathering will surely seep into the fabric of that essay, somewhere, some time. Grateful for the smell of bread, and the privilege, the peace to break it, tonight and beyond.

نان گیسو و داستانش  

This is Farsi for braided bread. In Iran, there are many variations like challah, with similar taste and texture, called “shirmal,” literally translated into “milk-rubbed.” Shirmal is usually flavoured with saffron and cardamom and brought as a souvenir when traveling from one region to another. This one in particular is called “gisoo” (braided) for its shape.

Photo of Nezon’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

Thornhill, Ontario

This bread (recipe below) has become my personal tradition. I make it for my family every Friday and on countless other occasions for people dear to my heart. Kneading, shaping and baking the loaf does as much to nourish me as I hope it nourishes the people I share it with. It is golden, soft, dense, and sweet; warm, crispy and fragrant. It represents celebration, joy, and happiness; memories and tears; holidays, traditions, and family. It is a handwoven symbol of love.

Janet’s son, Josh, also submitted a parchment paper (pictured right). 

Photo of Josh’s challah parchment paper by Rob Shostak.

Ingredients 

1 cup warm water
½ cup sugar
1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast
½ cup canola oil
2 large eggs (warm them in a bowl of warm water for a min or two first)
2 teaspoons salt (I use kosher salt)
Approximately 5 cups unbleached white flour 

Directions

  1. In a large bowl mix together 1 cup warm water, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast.
  2. Beat in 1/2 cup canola oil, 2 large eggs (warm them in a bowl of warm water for a minute or two first).
  3. Add in 2 teaspoons salt (I use kosher salt), and approximately 5 cups unbleached white flour 
  4. Stir together and keep adding enough flour to make a dough that’s smooth and not sticky. Add more flour or water as needed to adjust dough texture. (The amount needed will vary slightly with the humidity of the air.)
  5. Turn out onto a floured board or slab and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Approximately 10 minutes.
  6. Form dough into a ball. Place in a large oiled bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Approximately 1 hour. 
  7. Punch down dough. Turn out onto a board and divide into sections according to how you want to shape it (eg. 3-braid, 4-braid etc.)
  8. Shape challah. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and cover loosely with a towel or plastic wrap sprayed with oil. Depending on the temperature, let rise until doubled in size and puffy. This can take between 1-2 hours, or even longer. You know it’s ready when you poke your finger into it and the dent doesn’t disappear!
  9. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  10. Beat one egg until well mixed and brush entire surface of challah. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  11. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until well browned. Bottom should sound hollow when you tap it. Cool on a rack for one hour.

Enjoy!

Learn more about Janet’s joyful sensory approach to food for children, parents and educators at rainbowplate.com.

Header image and recipe card design by Orly Zebak. Header photographs by Morris Lum. 

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