Brioche for Bastille Day, Hallah for Shabbat

by Leah Hadad on July 9, 2015

©2015 Tribes-A-Dozen Brioche ©2015 Tribes-A-Dozen Brioche

Experimenting with brioche while developing my line of Voilà! Hallah Egg Bread Mixes a few years ago led me to wonder: are ‘hallah’ and ‘brioche’ just two monikers for essentially the same bread? Is hallah bread brioche’s poorer relative? I bake hallah regularly and, while I love brioche — the heavenly French bread, rich with butter and a golden brown hue — I rarely bake it. A time to celebrate freedom and democracy, the approaching Bastille Day gave me a noble excuse to bake up a storm. Click for Brioche Recipe here.

Bastille Day ignited the French Revolution on July 14, 1789; it is historically acknowledged as the catalyst for the fall of monarchy and the rise of the modern republic. As the historical legend goes, the French Queen Marie Antoinette became immortal when she uttered “Then let them eat cake,” before her fateful appointment with the guillotiner. “Them” were the poor French people, starving due to bread shortages. It has been debated whether these words indeed passed through her lips. Whoever said it, though, apparently suggested they eat brioche, not cake, as the English translation misleads us to believe.

Investigating the roots of dishes conventionally considered ‘Jewish food’ fascinates me, which is not enough for me to claim the food historian title. Jews resided in France since the early Middle Ages, where they had experienced expulsions and returns before the 18th century’s Bastille Day. The French Revolution led to their emancipation and a grant of French citizenship. France now has the largest Jewish community outside of Israel and the USA.

Jewish and French cuisines are diametrically situated. The former with many restrictions imposed on the use of ingredients, flavors and their combinations, while the latter is abundantly limitless. Jewish food is essentially the local cuisine conformed to the kosher dietary rules. Both, brioche and hallah are enriched egg breads, albeit brioche is richer because it usually contains more eggs and a higher percentage of fat. Brioche is made with dairy ingredients, milk and butter, while hallah — because of the prohibition to serving milk and meat at the same meal — is nondairy.

So, is there a connection between hallah and brioche? Brioche is said to be an offshoot of a Norman bread recipe, which originated from Roman bread. Both brioche and Romanian sweet bread are prepared similarly and are traditionally served for holidays. Still today, different ethnic groups serve a version of a braided, sweet egg bread for special holidays, such as Easter and Christmas.

Hallah is so much a part of the Jewish Shabbat and holiday experience that we like to believe that it was part of our tradition forever. Not quite so. This yeasted, egg bread is only one variation of many such a bread. Hallah was adopted from the Germanic tradition and so were berches or barches, the names German Jews gave the braided Shabbat loaf. Apparently, women of Teutonic tribes invented braided German bread loaves. They originally offered their braided hair to their Goddess Berchta. With time, they offered braided loaves, as imitation of their hair braids, called Berchisbrod or Perchisbrod.

Also, most of us understand the Hebrew word hallah to mean ‘portion,’ for the commandment of separating a small piece of dough before baking the loaf. It was a symbol of the twelve loaves the Israelites made as an offering to the high priest in the temple before its destruction. Another, not as readily accepted, explanation traces ‘hallah’ to the Judaization of Holle, one of the names of the German Goddess to whom pagans offered braided loaves. Offerings of sweet breads or cakes to goddesses and idols apparently date back to the Israelites, Ancient Egypt and the rest of the old world.

Serving hallah for Shabbat and holiday meals is now an established Jewish tradition, which originated from some European Jewish communities. They called hallah ‘barkhes’ or ‘barches.’ When the ‘ch’ is pronounced like in ‘Charlie,’ barches sounds a lot like brioche. All these descriptors are made from the root b.r.kh. The ‘kh’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew letter khaf, which Ashkenazi Jews tend to transliterate as ‘ch,’ like the Germans do. Substitute ‘ch’ for the ‘kh’ and you have bracha — the Hebrew word for blessing – with the same root letters as in brioche. I favor the etymological connection I hear in these names – brioche and barches, the Goddess Berchta and bracha (blessing), but unsure about the Goddess Holle and hallah. All these explanations hint to our shared beginnings before the stories of different people and their languages diverged.

Having baked many loaves of hallah and brioche, I can tell you that each is a singular kind of blessing. Brioche can be baked in many shapes – fluted, rolled, twisted and braided, a bun — and flavors. The chocolate brioche is heavenly as is the bread pudding made with it. If you feel intimated by baking either from scratch, try this easy recipe with our Traditional Voilà! Hallah Egg Bread Mix. It would be a special treat any day, not just on Bastille Day.

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