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Q & A With a Challah Master

challah baker

Cheryl Holbert is the newest addition to Bakey Babka, an Israeli bakery in downtown Boston, where her story – she’s a production baker – is as interesting as her creations.

Holbert isn’t classically trained. In fact, her culinary ambitions didn’t begin until adulthood. She started her career as a journalist and moved into a role running an arts program at the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Through this program, she gained an interest in weaving and tapestry. Eventually that led to baking, where she approaches challah from an artist’s perspective, utilizing her skills as a weaver to create intricate challah designs.

We caught up with Holbert to hear more about her background, how she started baking, and thoughts about joining the Bakey Babka team.

What inspired you to start baking and how did you learn? 

My father was Persian and my mother was Polish. I didn’t grow up Jewish, but I always felt drawn to the Jewish heritage. It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered my mother’s family had Jewish origins. Challah is a bakery staple deeply rooted in Jewish culture. On top of that, I grew up in New Jersey, where there was always good bread available. In my early twenties I moved to New England and I felt homesick for good bread. I started with a pan loaf and then decided to master challah bread.

One of my first teachers was Maggie Glezer, who wrote “A Blessing of Bread.” She specialized in Jewish bread and I learned a lot about challah from her. In 2018, Jeffrey Hamelman, whom I met through King Arthur Baking, invited me to participate in Fête Du Pain, a bread festival that takes place in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I was asked to create an art piece with my challah, which was an homage to the rose window of Notre Dame. Also, Richard Miscovich from Johnson and Wales taught me about wood-fired baking.

Do you remember your first experience baking?

It was when I first started dating my husband, and I wanted to impress him. He invited a friend to my apartment, so I made a cinnamon swirl pan loaf bread. I was a full-time journalist at the time and I don’t know what made me think it would be good, but it blew them away! I transitioned to making challah after that.

What was your path to Bakey Babka? 

I had been following Uri Scheft, co-founder of Bakey Babka, on Instagram for a while. He was a huge inspiration for me regarding challah. I had been baking from my New Hampshire cottage bakery and needed a change of scenery. I asked Uri if he would consider me for a production baking position. I had heard wonderful things about Bakey Babka and knew I’d be in an environment with incredible bakers. Uri invited me to the bakery in September 2022 and introduced me to his partner, Or Ohana. I officially joined Bakey Babka in mid-January 2023.

What makes your challah so unique?

Challah ties everything in my life together. My experience and love of weaving gives my challah the character and form it has. I approach challah from the perspective of a weaver. I didn’t realize that until recently. The unique colors of my challah come from my tapestry background. I use organic ingredients like matcha for green and turmeric for orange. It’s a true testament to everything you do in life circles back around.

Bakey Babka

Are there other favorites in your baking repertoire?

Challah is the queen of bread for me. The feeling I get when I make challah can’t be compared to anything else. No matter what is going on in my life, everything is as it should be when I make challah. But I do like the diversity of baking and have a passion for sourdough and Persian flatbread as well. I have a passion for organic, local grains and I have a great relationship with farmers in New Hampshire who help provide grains for my dough.

Tell us about your Challah workshop. 

It will be a two-and-a-half-hour class at Bakey Babka where I’ll focus on braiding structure using a basic artisan technique. Students can range from experienced to beginner – I try to accommodate all levels. I will teach how to make basic two-strand braids as well as four and six-strands. My hope is that everyone walks away with something they can feel proud of and feel inspired to keep learning. It is gratifying to make something beautiful while understanding the process.

What does being part of the Boston food scene mean to you?

It is incredibly exciting. Production baking means that this bread is in high demand and it is gratifying to know that I am part of a team that will help feed so many people. Bakeries of this caliber are hard to come by. To have a bakery that can produce the level of what it’s producing is so amazing for the community. Boston has grown so much over the years, and to be part of a bakery in that food scene is incredible. I hope to develop a more robust challah community in Boston.


Nicolette Degrassi

Nicolette Degrassi is a Boston based food and travel blogger. When she's not traveling the world, you can find her reading the latest Book of the Month novel or trying to perfect her sticky toffee pudding recipe. Follow her adventures on Instagram @nadegrassi.


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