Hope Kramer of East Hampton arrived at her challah baking business in 2021 by way of a 30-year career in nonprofit management and development, with a brief foray into rugelach in between.
Now, Ms. Kramer's creations, under the label Twisted Challah Bakery, routinely sell out at the East Hampton Farmers Market and the other specialty markets where they are available, including Schiavoni's Market in Sag Harbor, Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett, Serene Green and Cromer's in Noyac, Damark's Market in Springs, and Gosman's Market in Montauk. Get there early because it'll likely happen again tomorrow, which happens to be the first night of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
The "twist," Ms. Kramer said, is she has developed a modern take on traditional challah that becomes the base for savory varieties like jalapeno-and-cheddar, everything bagel, and sun-dried tomato, mozzarella, and onion, as well as sweet takes like cinnamon-sugar, pecan-praline, and double-chocolate, plus seasonal flavors like apple for the fall. For Rosh Hashana, there will also be the traditional round, raisin version.
"The bread has a lot of meaning, a religious and spiritual meaning, and so when you're kneading the dough, it's a way to get lost in your thoughts," said Ms. Kramer. "The challahs, especially the stuffed ones, cross all religions -- there are people who don't know what a challah is and they'll start with the cinnamon sugar because it makes great French toast."
She bakes at home, at the Stony Brook Food Business Incubator in Calverton, and sometimes, for special occasions, in the Kosher kitchen at Chabad of the Hamptons, of which she and her husband, Larry Zimmerman, a retired builder, are members.
"I've been baking pretty much my whole adult life for my family and friends," she explained after last week's East Hampton market wrapped up. "When my kids were younger I used to think about opening a bakery with a couple of friends, but you know -- kids, life, everything."
That's why the success she's found with Twisted Challah Bakery is such a big deal for her. The first fall season she was in business she could bake and sell 96 challahs for a holiday weekend; fast-forward to Labor Day weekend this year, when she baked and sold 320 -- a more than threefold increase in two years' time. A dream, she said, is to open a Jewish bakery here in East Hampton.
"There are probably a million recipes for challah on the internet, but somehow I've been able to find the balance between the sweet and the fluff," Ms. Kramer said. "It had to pass muster with my kids and my grandkids -- they're number one. And at the time, I was working in an office with about 15 other people, so all these other people became my taste testers. It really started with the rugelach, but I didn't feel like that was enough, so I started down this path with the challah."
The proof is in the pudding, or rather, in the pillows. Ms. Kramer is also known for her "challah pillows" -- a soft, round, cloud-like pastry that's reminiscent of a less crunchy cinnamon-sugar churro. Her rugelach flavors include chocolate (nut-free!), cinnamon walnut, and pistachio raspberry.
Along the way, Ms. Kramer got enthusiastic help from Goldie Baumgarten, who is executive director of Chabad of the Hamptons with her husband, Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten; from David Drake, a veteran challah baker; from her "right hand" friend Mary Trabona, who helps with myriad tasks, and from Mr. Zimmerman himself.
"It's not the first time for either one of us starting a business from nothing, but it's exciting to do it all over again," Mr. Zimmerman said.
While she's baking, Ms. Kramer will often put on a Spotify playlist. It could be anything from the Eagles and Carole King to the Weeknd and Ariana Grande. "Anything I can sing to," she said, and anything that can help keep her in a happy mood and feeling energetic.
"If I'm not in a good headspace I will stop baking until I am, because I feel it comes through in the bread," Ms. Kramer said. "I always want to feel positive when I'm doing the dough. It is a passion and a love, and I feel like that does come through somehow in the baking. . . . I think with so much negativity around, this is a happy place to be."