Berches is the ceremonial bread that was eaten by the Jews of Germany for the weekly Sabbath and for holidays. It differs from the challah most Americans are familiar with in two ways: 1) it is a "water bread" that does not contain eggs in the dough, 2) it contains mashed potato in the dough, which gives it a slightly tangy taste, similar to sourdough bread. Following tradition, this bread is braided and sprinkled with poppy seeds. My mother, Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman, and I are writing "The German-Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Cuisine", which will be published in 2017 by Brandeis University Press, HBI Series on Jewish Women. This recipe was slightly adapted from one given to us by Herta Bloch, who with her husband Alfred owned the well-known and much-loved German-Jewish meat shop Bloch & Falk in New York City from the 1940s - mid-1990s. Berches can either be made in loaf pans or as a free-form bread (I have included a photo of each version above), though in either case the bread will be braided. —sonya gropman
2 small loaves or 1 large loaf of bread
2 lbs (7 cups) + extra for kneading, all-purpose flour
1/4 cup + 2 cups lukewarm water
1 1/4-ounce packet active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup neutral oil (such as canola or safflower) + extra for greasing bowl + pans
1 medium, white potato (such as Russet), cooked, peeled, mashed, + cooled
Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center.
Pour 1/4 cup lukewarm water in the well. Add the yeast and sugar, and stir gently to dissolve. Let sit for 5-10 minutes, until it bubbles.
Add the 1/4 cup oil, mashed potato, and salt to the bowl. With a wooden spoon (or your hands), start to mix the flour into the yeast mixture in the well. Gradually add some of the 2 cups of lukewarm water as needed to moisten the flour (being careful not to add too much as the dough should remain firm), while continuing to mix.
Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a floured bread board, or counter. Knead by hand until all the flour has been incorporated and the dough is well-blended and smooth.
Wash and dry the bowl and lightly grease it with oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel*, and place in a warm spot. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough in the bowl. Turn it out onto the floured bread board, or counter, and knead until smooth.
a) IF USING LOAF PANS: lightly oil two loaf pans. Cut the dough in half. Using the first half, cut into 3 equal parts and roll each part into a rope of equal length.
TO BRAID: lay the 3 ropes in a row next to each other and pinch the ends together. Cross the left rope over the middle rope, then cross the right rope over the middle rope, then cross the left over the middle, etc., continuing until you reach the end of the ropes. Pinch the ends together, tuck under, and place in a loaf pan. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
b) IF MAKING A FREE-FORM LOAF: Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Cut the dough into 3 equal parts, roll each part into a rope of equal length. Braid the ropes together as described in step a) above. Place the loaf on the cookie sheet.
Cover the the pans, or loaf, with slightly moistened towel. Return to the warm spot and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Brush the top of the loaves, or loaf, with the beaten egg and sprinkle evenly with poppy seeds. Bake in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and tapping the bottom of the loaf with your fingers makes a hollow sound.
Let cool on a rack. If using loaf pans, when cool enough to handle, turn loaves out and place on a rack to finish cooling.
* Simply dip your fingers in some water and sprinkle a few drops on the towel, you don't want the towel to be too wet!