Do the twist
Flour, yeast, water, and salt are the essential ingredients to produce bread. But for baker, blogger, and cookbook author Marissa Wojcik, BA ’16, there is no bread without family, history, connection, and creativity.
It’s a lesson she learned in 2020 during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. That’s when Wojcik began a baking odyssey that would fuse her modern American lifestyle to the Jewish family traditions that long predated her birth. Now she is sharing revelations made during that journey of self-discovery in her book, Modern Jewish Breads (2023), and its companion blog, North Shore to South Bay
“A lot of my inspiration comes from my family history,” says Wojcik, a Chicago native who recently moved to San Diego from Los Angeles. “One of my grandmothers is a Holocaust survivor while the other grew up in a Jewish family in Milwaukee.”
A blank slate
Baking in her LA kitchen allowed Wojcik to indulge in the nostalgia of her midwestern upbringing and to feel connected to the relatives she was unable to see during quarantine. She had grown up in the kitchen “but never took the plunge into the world of bread until the pandemic hit,” she says.
But if she expected to fill a family-inspired cookbook with beloved recipes passed down for generations, she would be hard-pressed to find any. Her culinary-focused relatives may have been linked by a love of traditional foods, but each followed their own recipes and personal methods. No one ever thought to pass along a stained or dogeared cookbook, let alone share secret ingredients from days gone by.
Undeterred by her seemingly disjointed heritage, the U-M history major decided to braid together her own identity even as she braided challah bread into wildly modern iterations. She describes her Canadian Poutine Challah as one of the most creative and challenging recipes in her cookbook.
“It is such a labor-intensive process…but it is so worth it,” she says.
And if that’s too much complexity for an aspiring baker, Wojcik showcases another of her favorite innovations: The Chicago Hot Dog Babka. The unusual recipe conjures Wojcik’s summertime memories with a best friend cheering for the Cubs in Wrigley Field.
“My recipes are all about using old-world techniques and modern ingredients,” she says.
She knows that reinventing and adapting some of her culture’s most time-honored traditions comes with a risk, but she hopes to appeal to younger American Jews, who often connect to their Judaism through such alternative means as food culture and its online communities.
“When I first started making flavored challahs and unique babkas there were a lot of older Jewish women in my life who were mortified,” she says.
So while the stalwart traditionalists may not be her target audience, Wojcik hopes they will embrace the contemporary twists she brings to the table. Making Jewish food one’s own way can open a positive pathway to Jewish history and culture, Wojcik says.
The baker speaks from experience. Even while kneading her non-traditional challah dough, Wojcik preserves the sacred tradition of saying a prayer while she works.
“It gives me a space to connect spiritually with my Judaism and my ancestors,” she says.
That spiritual awareness came as a complete surprise when Wojcik, like many other stir-crazy bakers on lockdown, took to breadmaking on Instagram. Articles at the time explained the popular trend as a way to cope with a scary and uncertain world. “Bread is just science. Or it’s magic. Or it’s both,” according to Emily VanDerWerff in a 2020 piece for Vox. One of the bakers she interviewed said it was nice having control over “something so positive in a frightening and unsettling time.”
Once Wojcik embraced the social media trend on her own terms, she found her niche in the babka and challah space and decided to document her experience online and in a self-published cookbook.
In many ways, the experience mirrored her favorite time as a Michigan senior when she was inadvertently placed in a class called “The History of the Ship.” It was not her first choice but would serve as a memorable finale to her undergraduate studies. The course opened a window into the culture of early Jewish settlers in Newport, R.I., and Wojcik wrote her final college paper on the region’s population from 1654-1776.
Similarly, something wonderful – and unexpected – has evolved from her COVID baking journey. Wojcik is now working on a second cookbook inspired by all those special Jewish women in her life. The collection will feature recipes beyond breads, with each chapter dedicated to a different woman.
For Wojcik, the experience of fusing the old and new is an opportunity to diversify modern Jewish cuisine while also preserving its history and traditions. She hopes her creative recipes inspire people to find new ways to honor the cultures that make up who they are. Baking, sharing, and eating is one of the quickest ways to connect with others, she has learned. It’s certainly working for her.
“It means that we are finding meaningful connections to Judaism in other places and a huge part of that is the burgeoning Jewish American food scene.” she says.
(Lead image is a sweet corn babka from Wojcik’s cookbook, supplied by Wojcik.)