Photo by: Dixie D. Vereen — For The Washington Post"Pan challah is a beautiful slightly sweet and delicious bread perfect for any time of the day," touts the store-brand package I pick up at my local Giant Food. But not this loaf, which, as it turns out, is unfit for the consumers who are most familiar with challah and whose ancestors have ushered in the Sabbath with it for thousands of years.Bread, sure. Challah, not so much.Traditionally, challah is yeasted, moistened with oil and enriched with eggs and sugar; symbolically, some say, it recalls the manna the Israelites were given by God after they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Those who follow Jewish dietary laws know that the bread is pareve, containing neither dairy or meat -- two food groups that should not co-exist at the table -- so it can be eaten with either dairy or meat dishes.Virginia businessman Roy Ackerman keeps kosher. That, and the fact that he has a substantial scientific background, makes him a ingredient-label reader. About a year and a half ago, he noticed a certain additive on the label of Giant's challah, all caps for emphasis:"Bread flour (wheat flour and malted barley flour enriched with niacin, reduced iron thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, soya oil, sugar, corn syrup, egg powder, salt, yeast, puratos S-500 (wheat flour, datem, dextrose, soybean oil, ascorbic acid, L-cystein, azodicarbonamide (ADA) enzymes, sodium stearoyl lactylate issl), egg color (water, FD&C yellow #5, citric acid FD&C yellow #6, sodium benzoate, FD&X $30)."
It's an emulsifier/stabilizer that also prolongs the bread's shelf life. Trouble is, sodium stearoyl lactylate comes from an animal -- often the liver of cattle, to be precise. The pareve conflict is not so apparent, as most people don't know the provenance of that ingredient. It would be akin to hidden pork fat in a dish for the Muslims' Eid al-Fitr.Nowhere on Giant's label for its Pan Challah do the words "kosher" or "pareve" appear, nor do any symbols of kosher certification. When reached just before the holiday week was grinding to a halt, Giant made that clear and issued this statement, via email: "Nothing is more important than the trust of our customers. Our store teams make every effort to ensure our product labeling is correct in every store everyday. We welcome our customers to let us know if they have any questions or concerns."Ackerman says there are plenty of folks who identify as "ingredient kosher," meaning they monitor labels for pareve ingredients. They don't necessarily have to seek out only products that are kosher-certified. Still, he asks, "What I want to know is, who else is buying Pan Challah except for Jews who want to make French toast?"In general, "The term 'challah' is misapplied," says Gedalia Walls, a rabbi who grew up in Rockville, Md., and since 2004 has worked as an assistant director of field operations for the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, a group that provides oversight for kosher food operations in the area.The word is biblical. It refers to a first portion of the dough, taken at the start of making a large batch. The portion was an offering to God, or to the high priests of the First and Second Temples in ancient Jerusalem. The breads baked just before the Sabbath eventually came to be known as challahs, sweet offerings themselves for the weekly day of rest. And although much significance has been applied to their braided tops, the braids derive not from ancient tradition but most likely from the practice of German or Eastern European bakers.Walls remembers the Giant Food days when the late Izzy Cohen ran the place, from the mid-1960's till the early '90s: "He was one of the first area grocers to bring in pareve ice cream, and the stores could be counted on to carry a wide array of products for the Jewish holidays."Giant can call it whatever they want to, but I would urge people to take the initiative to look for things that are kosher-certified," he says. "For Jews, bread is supposed to be pareve."I'm feeling less generous. Some Giant stores do sell fresh or frozen kosher-certified challahs made elsewhere. But their Pan Challah doesn't deserve the title it's been given.(c) 2015, The Washington Post
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