09/16/12 — A little yeast: A second act

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A little yeast: A second act

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 16, 2012 1:50 AM

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Elena Cully works with some dough before making challah, a braided Jewish bread her grandmother, Eva, taught her to make when she was a little girl growing up in Russia. The baker has come up with more than a dozen bread recipes and recently opened Elena's Breadbasket, a bakery that uses only healthy ingredients.

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Elena's Breadbasket offers more than a dozen types of bread -- from jalapeno cheddar and garlic Italian to sourdough and challah. Because of her philosophy on ensuring each loaf is healthy, Elena is one of only a few vendors that have been invited to sell their creations at Wayne Memorial Hospital. To learn more about the bakery or to place an order, find Elena at the hospital on Thursday mornings, visit the Elena's Breadbasket Facebook Page or e-mail ecully@nc.rr.com.

SEVEN SPRINGS -- A little girl stands alongside her grandmother and the lesson begins.

Separate the dough into three equal strands.

Pray as you braid them.

Gently distribute eggwash across the top of the loaf.

Cover it with cloth so it has a chance to rise one final time.


With every challah Elena Cully prepares, she can feel her teacher next to her in the kitchen.

"When my grandmother would do it, she would always say the Jewish prayer," she said, before reciting a long Hebrew verse. "It means, 'Thank you God for teaching us how to bring bread out of the earth.'

"She was a very good cook, a very good host and a wonderful baker. A lot of people say that is where I get it from. It seems like every time I make my challah, she is watching over me."


It started with a young woman's desire to keep a family tradition alive -- to relive the fond memories made in a simple kitchen in Russia.

"I like the challah because you get to play with the dough when you braid it, but it also has a spiritual meaning to me and my family," Elena said. "So I started making it and giving it away.

"People are getting more and more into it. Some like it for the meaning and others like it for the taste. I'm just happy that they care."

She had no idea that within a few years, her passion would become a profession -- that after her husband, James, retired from the Air Force and she lost her job as an insurance underwriter, she would open her own business.

She had no way of knowing that she would one day add more than a dozen breads to her repertoire; that, like her grandmother, Eva, she would be known for her culinary creations.

"But this is actually what I enjoy doing, so it worked out for the best," she said.


Not long after she lost her job, Elena started working for a bakery for a few hours a week.

"It didn't last long. (The owner) said he didn't have the money for another employee," she said. "But the important thing I learned while working there is that there is nothing there that I don't have in my house. So I said, 'Why don't I do it by myself?'"

Then, she was watching television and saw someone talking about how important bread was -- how, in the Bible, it was characterized as critical.

"God said to Adam, 'By the sweat of your brow, you will make bread,'" Elena said. "I started thinking, 'Is that a sign?'"

But she was determined to found Elena's Breadbasket in a principled way -- the "right" way.

So she applied for a license and opened her home to a Wayne County health inspector.

And she decided her creations would be healthy -- void of chemicals and preservatives; baked using non-bleached flour and natural sweeteners like honey.

"And here I am baking bread," she said. "It goes pretty well. I have some customers that buy every week."


Elena would tell you that she is driven by something much more meaningful than a paycheck.

And while her love of bread, and the woman who taught her how to bake it, is part of what motivates her, memories made outside of the kitchen are just as poignant.

Like the day she broke down in a Russian grocery store.

"We had nothing in the stores. There would be a store probably as big as Food Lion and there was only a little counter selling bread and another little counter selling rotten tomatoes. I kid you not," she said. "So somehow, I went to Great Britain on a field trip and I saw that they had everything in the stores. It was a luxury we were not used to.

"So when I came back home, I went to the store to buy bread. I was standing in line and just started crying. ... It was a horrible experience, knowing what you didn't have. I will never forget the feeling of growing up with nothing. It just kills you."

Or how hard her parents had to work to ensure their family had something other than boiled potatoes to eat.

"We never went hungry," Elena said. "But I don't know where my mother would get the food -- how she would get it. You had to work really hard for things like that."

That, she says, is why she has such a deep appreciation for something as simple as bread -- a food that might be routine to many, but meant so much more to the little girl who created it alongside her grandmother.

And that is why she will continue to share her creations with the customers she comes into contact with.

"I don't know why, but I just love feeding people," Elena said. "It's something I just really enjoy doing."