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Ellen Love’s Challah Bread, Photography by David Benthal

The holidays are a time for food-filled traditions. Every December, families come together to bring passed-down secrets to life, filling their kitchens with the nostalgic scent of their grandmother’s holiday cookies or great-grandmother’s signature baked bread. 

Ellen Love of Southold has been using the same recipe to bake challah bread for 50 years. The recipe was originally shared with her by the mother of one of her daughter’s friends, and she has since passed it down to her children, grandchildren and anyone else in her community who wants to learn it. 

The rich, braided loaf is a festive Jewish bread, typically broken for Shabbat and holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. As a volunteer and member of North Fork Reform Synagogue, Love has been sharing her homemade challah at Shabbat for years. Topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds and a hint of fennel, her loaves offer a flavorful twist on the traditional challah and have developed a fan base among the members of the NFRS congregation. Love explained: “People would ask me, ‘Did you make this? Could you teach me?’ ” 

Ten years ago, Love began offering challah baking classes to members of the temple, inviting them into her home three or four at a time and guiding them through the lengthy process. 

“We would gather in the kitchen to do the mixing, and then we’d all scatter around the dining table,” she said. “Everyone would stick their hands in the dough and knead the bread and I would go around and correct their technique.” 

As they prepared the bread, she let them in on little secrets — tried and true — that she’s picked up through 50 years of baking the sweet bread. Replace a cup of white flour with light whole wheat flour. King Arthur flour is superior. Add an extra egg in the egg wash to make the bread extra glossy. Use Plugra butter, a European brand with a higher concentration of butterfat, to improve the texture and taste. 

“I try to do everything local,” Love said, like using local honey and fresh eggs from Deep Roots Farm to form the dough. “It’s not an exact science like other baking, it’s more about the feel,” she added. 

It’s not an exact science like other baking, it’s more about the feel.”

Ellen Love

While the challah rose, Love would put out scones and coffee for the group. Sometimes they’d go for a walk, other times they’d sit and chat, exchanging stories and challah techniques that they grew up with. 

“It was just fun,” Love said. “We’d talk, get to know each other. I learned the four-strand braid from someone who said that this is the way that her family did the challah, and I’ve used that ever since.” 

Love herself grew up around challah, but it wasn’t until later in life that making it became a hobby for her. She was first introduced to it by her Jewish grandmother, who would bake fresh loaves every Friday night out of her tiny kitchen on the Upper West Side. 

“I don’t think I ever appreciated what she was doing. I just knew it was good,” she explained. “As I got older, I realized what it must have taken for her to make it … I didn’t get my desire to bake challah from my grandmother, but I think it lodged in my mind as something special.”

Today, Love makes challah in different shapes and sizes, playing with different braiding techniques. Sometimes, especially for Rosh Hashanah, she’ll twist the braids into a traditional round bread. Other times, she’ll leave them as three- and four-strand braids, making knots with the extra dough. For Hanukkah, she’ll get creative, adding in dried fruit like cranberries, chopped California apricots and raisins to give it a wintry, holiday feel.

For Love, making challah is not as much about the tradition as it is about the community and comfort it brings. 

“It’s the feel of the dough, the pleasure that people get while eating it and the fun of just making it,” she said. “It’s a quiet, meditative experience for me, and I love sharing it.” 

About every two weeks, Love makes multiple loaves of challah to share with family, friends and members of the synagogue. She’s often sending express packages of the homemade bread to her grandchildren in Boston, Atlanta and California. “We do a lot of shipping,” she joked. “The whole family loves it. They know how to make it, and yet, they want me to send it to them.” 

These days, Love is limiting in-person classes to interested synagogue members who haven’t attended previously. But her challah baking tutorial is available to everyone on the North Fork Foodie Tour’s YouTube channel. 

Ellen Love’s Challah

Serves 2 loaves


  • 2 packets instant yeast
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 cup very warm water
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup milk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 4 1/2 – 5 1/2 cups flour, bread flour preferred
  • 1 stick softened butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • poppy seeds
  • white and black sesame seeds
  • fennel seeds


  • In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in water. Cover lightly with a dish towel for 5 minutes, or until yeast looks foamy.
  • Add the eggs, milk, honey and salt. Then, add three cups of flour and butter. Gradually add a fourth cup of flour and mix briefly until dough is able to be handled. 
  • Turn dough out onto a floured board and begin kneading, gradually adding a cup of flour, as needed, until the dough is smooth and satiny. This step should take about 10 to 15 minutes. 
  • Place dough in a greased bowl and turn once to lightly grease the surface of the dough. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap, then let it rise until it doubles in size. This should take about one and a half to two and a half hours. 
  • Punch down the dough, knead it five or six times in a bowl and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and flatten it into a circle. Cut in half. Divide the first piece into thirds, squeezing and elongating strips for braiding. Braid and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Repeat this step with the second piece of dough. Lightly cover the loaves and let them rise for approximately 30 to 40 minutes. 
  • Mix two egg yolks with about a teaspoon of water. When the loaves are ready, brush them all over with the egg wash and sprinkle with seed seasoning (optional). 
  • Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Then, turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the loaves are brown (to your liking) and sound hollow when tapped. Cool on rack. 
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