Bake A Symbolic Shavuot Challah: Pan de Siete Cielos

People who stay up all night studying during the Tikkun Leil Shavuot enjoy sweet snacks to help them stay awake. There is one very special type of Shavuot treat that almost disappeared during the Holocaust. It is a Sephardic recipe from the Jewish community of Salonika.

Introduction

The Pan de Siete Cielos, or Bread of Seven Heavens probably got its name from an old Spanish expression meaning, “I am so happy that I feel like I am floating on seven clouds.” Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled from the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman Empire during the Inquisition. They brought their language and traditions with them. Sephardic Jews baked a special symbolic bread in celebration of the Shavuot wheat harvest. Because the Jewish community of Salonika was almost completely decimated by the Nazis, this tradition almost died with them.

The Pan de Siete Cielos is a type of rich, dairy challah. The baker sculpts symbols of the Shavuot story on the challah. First, a round challah is formed to represent Mount Sinai. Seven pieces of dough are rolled out, and pressed against the round challah, ringing it. They represent the seven skies or clouds. Then symbols of the Shavuot story are sculpted out of dough, and pressed against the clouds. Every family has its own traditions, but some common symbols are a Torah, Jacob’s ladder, Miriam’s well, a Star of David, a Hamsa, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. After the challah is baked honey is spread over it, and it is sprinkled with sesame seeds.

You should serve this bread when you read the Ten Commandments. As one grandmother explained, “Torah is as sweet as manna for those who make it their nourishment.”

Ingredients

Pan de Siete Cielos Adapted from Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Starvroulakis.

  • 8 cups flour 

  • ½ cup milk 

  • 2 cups warm water 

  • 5 eggs 

  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast

  • 2 cups sugar 

  • 3/8 cup melted butter 

  • 1 tsp. anise extract or Arak 

  • Honey 

  • Toasted sesame seeds

Preparation

Step 1


Pour the warm water into a large bowl. 



Step 2


Add the sugar and yeast. 



Step 3


Mix well and wait until the mixture foams, about 10 minutes. 



Step 4


In a separate bowl, place 3 cups of flour. 



Step 5


Make a hole in the center of the flour. 



Step 6


Pour the yeast mixture into this hole. 



Step 7


Start mixing in the flour until you have a light dough. 



Step 8


Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and allow the dough to rest for about 45 minutes. 



Step 9


Uncover the bowl and add eggs, milk, butter, and anise extract or Arak. 



Step 10


Knead more flour into the dough until it feels elastic. It can be less than 8 cups to achieve the desired texture. 



Step 11


Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel, and let the dough rise until it doubles in size, about 2 hours. 



When the dough has risen, you can sculpt your Pan de Siete Cielos. 


Step 1


First, tear off a piece of dough and roll it into a ball. This will be Mount Sinai, and it will be baked in the center. Place it on a large baking pan lined with parchment paper. 



Step 2


Tear of 7 pieces of dough, and roll them out with your hands to form ropes. 



Step 3


Wrap them around the ball of dough. These are your 7 clouds. 



Step 4


Then sculpt the Shavuot symbols of your choice, and press them into the clouds. Make the symbols that speak to you. 



Step 5


Cover the bread with a clean, moist kitchen towel. 



Step 6


Allow the dough to double in size. 



Step 7


Remove the towel, and paint your bread with egg wash (egg yolks beaten with a little water). 



Step 8


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius). 



Step 9


Place the bread in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the bread is golden-brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when it is tapped. 



Step 10


Remove the bread from the oven and brush with honey. 



Step 11


Sprinkle with sesame seeds.