Challah by Hannah: Alumna creates popular pop-up bakery
In bread, Hannah Schifman finds cultural connection and creativity.
In the depths of the pandemic, when social distancing and a flood of free time inspired a sourdough surge nationwide that produced droves of loaves, one burgeoning baker took a different approach to the home-baking renaissance. Hannah Schifman, c’18, returned to a quest she had begun while a KU student: perfecting her own recipe for challah, the braided bread that is central to Jewish culture and faith.
What started as a way for Schifman to maintain connections with the Jewish community during a time of isolation has since evolved into something bigger. Challah by Hannah, the pop-up bakery she runs in New York City, where she works at the International Center of Photography, has a loyal customer base for the “challah drops” she announces periodically in her email newsletter.
The “Kansas girl in a tiny Brooklyn apartment kitchen,” as she brands herself on Instagram, is harnessing social media and a willingness to experiment to expand her reach, but it’s her mastery of the traditional loaf that has gained the most attention. The online dining guide Eater New York recently praised her bread as “the holy grail of challah.”
Schifman spent much of her childhood in places with little or no Jewish presence before moving to Topeka in middle school. The sense of community she discovered in the city grew stronger when she came to KU and began to take advantage of the social and leadership opportunities offered by KU Hillel. “That became my core social bubble,” she says. “Having that opportunity to be involved and connected in that way at KU really strengthened my Jewish identity.”
A pivotal moment in her KU experience came while attending the Kansas Women’s Leadership Institute. Part of the Women’s Global Leadership Consortium funded by the U.S. Department of State, the annual summer institute brings together women from Kansas and countries around the world. A highlight is a communal meal where each participant makes a dish that represents their culture.
“It was a little challenging for us folks from Kansas,” Schifman recalls. “Some made casseroles. I was like, ‘Let’s try to make challah. Let’s bring in my Jewish identity.’ I had not really made it before.”
By 2020, she had earned a bachelor’s in art history from KU and a master’s from Marist University and was serving an internship at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. She returned to Topeka, where she had access to her mother’s three-oven kitchen. Looking for something to do and craving connection, she began baking enough challah to share with other members of the Jewish community.
“Not being able to go to services and be physically connected—that was something I did not want to lose,” she says. “It was mostly the same group of people every week, and they would be so happy when I came by to deliver to them.”
Challah is a yeast-leavened bread enriched with eggs that is traditionally served on the Sabbath and many Jewish holidays. It’s typically braided, and the number of strands—which can symbolize love, truth, peace, justice and various other tenets of the Jewish faith—can vary based on the baker’s preference.
Not satisfied with the commercial loaves she tasted, Schifman worked to recreate the challah she experienced at temple, “when a grandma or someone in the community” would make the bread for Shabbat.
Long after the lockdowns ended, Schifman kept honing her recipe, perfecting a loaf that melds a slightly sweet honey flavor with a light crust and a soft interior that easily pulls apart. Eater New York noted, “The golden crust has just the right sheen, nothing dull or taut going on there, and the interior is pillowy and moist, but sturdy. A superior challah like that isn’t so easy to come by.”
After mastering the traditional loaf, Schifman began innovating. She added herbs from her mother’s garden, and incorporated “everything” seasoning to create a bagel-adjacent challah. She made one sweet loaf featuring her favorite dark chocolate and another inspired by cinnamon rolls. She branched out from the traditional braid design, fashioning an arrowhead-shaped challah she delivered to “Saturday Night Live” cast member Heidi Gardner, ’06, when Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce hosted the show last spring. And she perfectly captured the iconic shape—and colors—of the KU mascot with a Jayhawk challah during March Madness.
Working out of a small kitchen limits her baking—“I can barely shuffle out 20 loaves, and even that’s a bit much,” she says—but Schifman can imagine a day when she may want to grow. For now, she’s happy to build on challah tradition with new flavors and shapes while maintaining her Jewish and Jayhawk roots, the latter nurtured by siblings currently on the Hill.
“The different years of Jayhawks, with the progression from the 1912 mascot,” muses Schifman, “that’d be really fun.”
Steven Hill is associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine.
Photos courtesy of Hannah Schifman