Miriam Litzman’s preparation for the High Holidays looks a little different than most.
Picture a handful of giant mixing bowls and several 10-pound bags of flour, sugar and egg cartons all over a large kitchen island and counters.
“It’s a mess. A beautiful, fun, holy mess,” she said. “A challah oasis.”
Litzman owns Oven Fresh Challah, which she runs out of her Phoenix home’s kosher-certified kitchen.
She expects to make around 500 challahs for the coming High Holidays, and she’s also offering chocolate babka and honey cake — all while using just one oven.
“I do it in batches,” she said. “Bake and freeze, bake and freeze. I freeze it at its peak freshness and it works perfectly.”
She has full-time help, and during the High Holidays her husband pitches in. She also hires another part-time helper. “It’s super busy and just so much work. In order to get it all done, I need all hands on deck.”
She is taking orders for the holiday rush until Aug. 13. Pickups will be scheduled for the week of Aug. 30.
Litzman is one of several kosher bakers in town, and said she usually gets three to four calls a day. Usually customers choose when to pick up their order within a week of placing it and their baked goods stay frozen until it’s time to dig in.
Baking is her passion, but it wasn’t always that way. Litzman only learned her way around the kitchen a couple years after she got married in 2008.
Litzman spoke with Jewish News about her foray into the kitchen and the origins of Oven Fresh Challah.
What made you get into baking?
There was a bakery here in town where we got our challah from every week and it was really good. But then it closed down and I didn’t know what I was going to do. And then I had an epiphany: I could make my own. I called a friend who walked me through it, because I fully needed to be walked through it. I had no clue what to do.
I didn’t know about yeast; I didn’t know about kneading; I didn’t know anything about challah. And I loved it right away. I loved the physicalness of it — working hard on making something and then having it come out beautiful in the end. And I liked the way it tasted — everything about it. It spiraled from there.
Now, baking is my passion. Cooking ... I do enjoy it, but it’s not as fun for me as baking. When I bake I don’t need a recipe. I can just put something together. If my kids want pancakes, I just whip up pancakes. Now I know the science behind all of it. So it’s something that I can kind of just do on a whim.
You didn’t grow up making Challah?
I grew up Orthodox and I’m raising my kids Orthodox but it was just not something my mother did. If you live in a place where it’s easy to buy, that’s just what she did. We were raised with so many other rich Jewish customs. A lot of times, as you’re raising your family, you just do the things that your mother does. But my kids love it and they always want to help me.
What was your intention when you first started Oven Fresh Challah and how has that changed over time?
When I first started, it was a very casual thing. I had no idea that it would become what it became. One time I made challah and a few people at the Shabbos table were like, “Oh, this is really good.” And then a few weeks later, I got comment after comment that it was good. And it wasn’t something I ever thought about — like maybe I could sell this — but then the idea came to me and I started very small, just selling to my friends. And then slowly but surely, over time, it just became my thing.
And I became known around town as the challah lady. A lot of times people will come to my house to pick up a challah and they’ll be surprised that I’m the challah lady, and I’m not an old lady.
It just took off. I started to really enjoy the process of baking. It brought me a lot of joy, and when you find something that brings you joy, you just run with it.
It started off with just challah and then it became babka and other baked goods: cakes and cookies. I just saw the need around the community of what people were asking for and I slowly added more products and got bigger and bigger. It took a life of its own over the years.
Another thing I was doing — it was really popular before COVID — was classes. Either people would hire me for a birthday party or I would do big events where someone would hire me and I would teach everybody how to make challah or babka. It was really popular.
How is business going?
I have five kids — 12, 10, 8, 4 and an 8-month-old baby. I’d say that business is going well because I love that I can work as much or as little as I want. And I love that I’m at a point in my business where people know who I am and I don’t have to run after customers. For so many years I would do so much advertising and do a lot of fairs to get my name out there. Once the baby gets a little older my plan is to totally revamp and go a lot bigger.
Why is Oven Fresh Challah still important to you?
Raising a family is definitely my priority. But it is important to me to have something that’s just mine, and it’s amazing that it also makes money. When you’re a mom, that can definitely take over your life and become your only identity. It’s so important for moms — whether they work full-time or part-time or whatever — to have something that’s just theirs.
It’s important to show your kids also that there’s more to life; it’s important to have something that you love and do it. And I can show my kids that you can take nothing and turn it into something. I worked and worked, and I made it into something really special. It took years and years and sweat and tears and trying things that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t and lots of failures.
It all pays off in the end, especially when you hear from people around the community that they love your product and they keep on coming back again and again. It makes you feel really good that you’re able to do something for the community.
How did COVID impact your baking?
During COVID I changed everything. I did a whole take-and-bake program, where I didn’t bake anything. I would make the dough and the customer baked it. I still offer that, but that’s what I was pushing during COVID because I felt people would feel more comfortable baking their own stuff.
How has your business impacted your Judaism?
Raising a family is very hectic and there’s not a lot of time to have to yourself to focus on God, focus on prayer. I take the opportunity when I make challah to pray. So it’s not only a business but it’s also a way for me to connect with God and take it really seriously.
Women have three mitzvot and making challah is one of them. There’s a mitzvah, which is when you make the dough, if you make more than five pounds, you take off a piece and you say a blessing and in that time you can pray to God for anything you want, and I take full advantage. I pray for my family, my friends and the world. Then you take that piece and you’re supposed to burn it, or you can wrap it and throw it in the garbage.
I really feel like it’s brought me closer to Judaism and made me feel like a part of all Jewish women all over the place. JN
To place your High Holiday challah, babka or honey cake orders with Oven Fresh Challah by Aug. 13, go to tinyurl.com/cjawafyb. For more information, email email@example.com or call 602-301-6170. Find Oven Fresh Challah on Facebook and Instagram @ovenfreshchallah.