Featured photo: Rolls of the OG challah by Peppelah Challah (courtesy photo)
It’s a Friday night thing.
As a child, Pepper Segal would eat challah bread on most Friday evenings to mark the start of Shabbat, a period of rest that lasts from sundown on Friday until Saturday night, recognized in her Reform Jewish household.
“It’s a rest and regrouping period,” explains Segal, now 34 years old. “You say a HaMotzi which is basically a prayer over the challah. It’s like thanking God or the universe for the bread you’re about to eat.”
Now a mother of two, Segal sends her kids to B’Nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, the same school she went to decades ago. Every Friday, teachers would send her kids home with some challah (pronounced “haa – luh”) to prepare for Shabbat, but when the pandemic hit and her kids had to stay home, their tradition of breaking bread also came to a halt. A trained chef, Segal had never been one for baking but decided to try her hand at the braided delicacy to keep her kids happy and maintain some normalcy in their weekly schedule. She started baking on Fridays and posting her challah creations on her Instagram.
“It wasn’t something I was trying to make into a business,” Segal says. “I was just baking for friends and family.”
But the more Segal baked and posted, the more people became interested in buying and trying her challah. Now, she makes about 40 loaves per week for Peppelah Challah, her new challah-focused business. The name is a play on Segal’s first name, Pepper, combined with a Yiddish term of endearment.
“Now I have it down to a science, kind of,” Segal says about the notoriously difficult bread. “I still adjust things every day. Baking is finicky; I’m not a baker. Everything from the weather to the flour to the eggs you buy can change the bake. You’re never done.”
Segal used to work in much larger kitchens, as a head chef for restaurants like PF Chang’s and the Cheesecake Factory. In 2018, while pregnant with her second child, Segal was diagnosed with breast cancer. She stopped working, and after giving birth, the cancer got worse.
“They had to take all my lymph nodes out of my left arm,” Segal says. “I was only 31 years old, but I feel like I have arthritis in my shoulder. My shoulder has extreme tendinitis.”
Six months after her surgery, Segal returned to her job but says her body didn’t cooperate the way it used to.
“My whole body gave out,” she says. “It’s trauma; it’s in my body. I was actually really happy to make people happy with my food. I was crushed when I found out that I couldn’t do the hard labor.”
Three years later, Segal says that baking challah has reignited her passion.
“Making challah has kept me grounded through the quarantine,” she says. “I started meditating since my cancer diagnosis, but it was hard to find time to meditate with my kids home from school. The first six months of the pandemic, I was losing myself and what I was before COVID. Baking was something that was an aid to stay mindful and present and grateful. I love making food. It’s always a pleasure. I’m never tired of it.”
Initially Segal says she looked up a bunch of recipes to try and make the challah, but now uses all kinds of flavors in her variations. She makes the OG — original challah — which she says isn’t as sweet as people might expect, in addition to ones like her Challahpeño, featuring jalapeño and white cheddar, a Za’atar challah with a sharp blend of Middle Eastern spices, and an Everything (But the Bagel) challah. She also creates sweet renditions like a vanilla honey or Nutella. Segal’s favorite way to eat the bread is to rip off a piece and dip it in Kosher salt. All of her breads come in the recognizable braided shape.
“It’s very difficult,” Segal admits about the braiding technique. “I’m very tactile so when I’m learning a new braid, I have to watch the video like 20 times while I’m doing it in order for it to register in my brain and become muscle memory.”
Segal is currently home-delivering the breads, which can be ordered online on a weekly basis. Shipping is an option but mostly reserved for bulk orders.
And while her breads might look traditional, Segal says that part of the fun of making her own breads is that she can play around with the flavors she wants, even if some old-school Jews may not like it.
“I’m in this one Jewish group on Facebook that has a lot of older bubbes and zaydes,” Segal says, using the endearing Jewish terms for grandmas and grandpas. “And there’s this one lady, she’s a spitfire, she was like, ‘Whatever happened to just plain challah?’”
But with tattoos running up and down her arms, Segal says that she’s always defied what a stereotypical Jew might look like, and that’s okay.
“I don’t think that I fit into what a typical Jew looks like,” she says. “But I had a woman who saw my tattoos and said she was scared to show hers until she saw mine. Judaism is about acceptance. It’s not exclusive…. There are so many different kinds of Jewish people. I feel like I try to bring some awareness to that.”
In addition to sharing her tasty breads, Segal says she wants people to be curious and learn more about Jewish culture through her food. In the future, she envisions turning her business into a food truck so she can drive around selling breads, challah sandwiches and French toast.
“I wanted to be like, ‘Here’s some challah, come learn about it; come taste it,’” she says. “Jewish traditions are tasty. It’s for everybody. I think it’s for anybody who enjoys fresh baked bread. Bread is love.”
Learn more about Peppelah Challah, including menu options, at peppelahchallah.com. Segal recommends ordering by Wednesday for delivery on Thursday and Friday. Follow her business on Instagram at @peppelahchallah.