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[caption id="attachment_176906" align="alignright" width="300"] Segal’s challah has found its way onto Shabbat tables across the country. “I built a community,” she says. “It absolutely connected me more to my Judaism

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[caption id="attachment_176906" align="alignright" width="300"] Segal’s challah has found its way onto Shabbat tables across the country. “I built a community,” she says. “It absolutely connected me more to my Judaism

Healing Through Challah Bread

Challah bread
Pepper Segal with two loaves of challah bread

Segal’s challah has found its way onto Shabbat tables across the country. “I built a community,” she says. “It absolutely connected me more to my Judaism and made me more proud to be Jewish.” photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Pepper Segal stands in front of her marble kitchen countertop, her blond hair pulled into a bun. She presses her palms into the ball of dough before her, kneading it methodically, with the rhythm of someone who’s done this countless times. As she moves, she recites the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer for healing, silently in her head.

She’s making challah, an enriched bread similar to brioche that’s central to many Jewish holiday observances. In her case, it’s always prepared with eggs. That makes for a more durable dough, Segal explains. “It’s harder to mess up. It’s very forgiving, just like the religion.”

After years in fast-paced commercial kitchens, she’s built a name for herself under the banner of “Peppelah Challah,” with playful challah varieties made here in her Greensboro home.

Segal grew up Jewish and attended B’nai Shalom — a day school in Greensboro where she now sends her two kids — but nobody in her family made challah bread. Back then, there wasn’t anywhere to buy it locally, though she’d occasionally receive it at school. A few years ago, when the Covid pandemic brought life to a halt, observing Shabbat with her family each Friday night became a salve in uncertain times. She began making challah, too, often inviting her kids into the process and braiding the bread into their weekly practice.

• • •

Segal had planned to become an art teacher. But after dropping out of college, she left Greensboro and moved to Israel. She fell in love with the fresh seafood and new flavors she found there, a far cry from the Southern staples she’d grown up with. After a short stint abroad, she returned to the U.S. to attend culinary school, eventually landing at P.F. Chang’s, where she became a sous chef by 23. Soon, she was traveling with the company, opening new locations, before The Cheesecake Factory came calling and hired her for similar roles. There, she met her husband, and the two eventually returned to Greensboro together to start a family.

“P.F. Chang’s was my college, and The Cheesecake Factory was my graduate school,” Segal says. “It was like the military, working there. They call it a factory for a reason.”

Brushing unbaked challah bread with egg wash

The chef behind Peppelah Challah has found the process of making challah — mixing, kneading, and braiding the dough before brushing it with an egg wash and baking it — to be a meditative practice. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

But in 2018, no longer with the company and pregnant with her second child, Segal was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease took a heavy toll on her, and she opted for a double mastectomy. She tried to keep working in restaurants, but the labor was just too physical.

Segal needed to slow down, but she resisted at first, as if she didn’t know how. The pandemic removed her illusion of choice. She focused on what was right in front of her — her kids, her home, the Jewish services and classes that she streamed online. Her bread.

One day, she posted a photo of her challah on Facebook, and a friend asked if she was selling it, given her culinary background. Segal wasn’t, but the friend wanted to buy it anyway. And so, Peppelah Challah was born.

“When I’m at home, I can pace myself,” she says. Some days are still physically challenging, “but the thing about owning a business is I can adjust.”

Challah bread with a side of butter

Segal’s traditional challah has a denser-than-average crumb, making it ideal for French toast or sandwiches. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Her customers are drawn to her traditional round challah bread for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the “Gelty Pleasure” challah that she makes for Hanukkah, which is stuffed with Nutella and topped with coin-shaped Belgian chocolate gelt. She easily entices a wide audience with her denser-than-average challah that’s ideal for French toast and sandwiches alike.

That cross-cultural appeal is important to Segal, and not just from a business perspective: Her husband is from Guatemala and identifies as Christian, and while she’s raising their kids Jewish, the family celebrates Christmas, too. The blending of traditions in her own life inspires her to make unconventional loaves like a garlic pull-apart challah stuffed with quattro formaggio and garlic butter, akin to Christmas yeast rolls. She also prepares a “Holiday Cookie” challah, filled with Biscoff cookie butter and topped with sugar cookie crumble.

Almost three years in — and with a loyal fanbase spread from Manhattan to Elon University’s Hillel and all the way to the West Coast — Segal is grateful that she was able to return to working in a kitchen on her own terms.

“I never saw myself baking; I used to think I was really bad at it,” she admits. “It’s completely different from cooking and requires a lot of patience. But you find your groove, and you get it down. Having kids taught me patience.”

• • •

At home, Segal stands on her white-tiled floors in her cushioned Cloud sneakers, sometimes blaring music and singing along at the top of her lungs, and other times baking in silence. She uses the word “meditative” to describe the experience of kneading the dough.

“It’s definitely grounding,” Segal says, adding that she often repeats the names of people in need of healing while she works, sometimes by request. “Shabbat is a pause and a reminder to really process the week. I do that when I bake challah, too. I get to put those feelings into my baking.”

Cancer and the Covid pandemic forced her to slow down, but they also offered some clarity on what’s most important. It’s not that she’s no longer ambitious — Segal has built a pretty significant operation from this relatively small kitchen, sometimes working on nearly 40 pounds of dough at a time before shipping orders across the country. There are still busy seasons, especially around major Jewish holidays. But she’s found a balance, folding once-distinct strands of work and life into a more harmonious whole.

To learn more and to place an order, visit peppelahchallah.com.

This story was published on Nov 21, 2023

Eric Ginsburg

Eric Ginsburg is an independent journalist based in Raleigh. He previously worked as an editor at Triad City Beat and YES! Weekly newspapers in Greensboro.