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My challah journey

About 25 people stood around a large rectangular table, and each shared a memory about challah. One person had never measured a cup of flour. Another had joined a challah-baking fertility circle and was now pregnant. I was teaching challah baking at LimmudNY for the second year, and the emotions surrounding the simple act of baking challah ran deep.

I bake challah every Friday, with very rare exceptions. One year, early in my Jewish observance, I forgot it was Pesach and baked challah as usual. That wouldn’t happen anymore, but baking challah has become an integral part of our family’s shabbat rituals. Perhaps it was the Wonder Bread consistency of store-bought challah that made me a challah baker. Perhaps it was a bit of the convert’s zeal. In the small town where I grew up, challah was not a part of my consciousness. I think I first learned about it from a menu describing challah french toast, and I wondered how to pronounce the “ch.”

Now, after 10 years, challah feels a part of my bones. I have made nearly every mistake imaginable in its preparation. I forgot the yeast, the sugar, or the oil. Cooked it too little, or nearly burnt it to a crisp. Tried all whole wheat, 1/2 whole wheat, and finally just 1/4 cup spelt flour. Tried the KitchenAid mixer, but went back to the whisk, wooden spoon and large 1930′s mixing bowl. The electric mixer didn’t give me enough tactile feedback.

I mix the dough in under 10 minutes. I get grumpy if every required utensil or ingredient is not in its exact place. My mis en place for the dough mixing has approached compulsive perfection. When I’m in the challah-baking zone, mixing the dough feels like a dance. This is true for both kitchens where I live and bake (NYC and Fire Island). When in a foreign kitchen, I relish the challenge of throwing together the dough with whatever implements are available. I once baked challah on a remote island in the Bahamas. That was where I discovered I had memorized the recipe.

Despite all this practice, I probably am only truly satisfied with my challot about once in five. Partly due to my perfectionism, which in turn leads me to constantly try and improve the recipe. And partly due to the wonderful way that life is always changing. The ambient temperature, the humidity, the freshness of the eggs, or the oven’s temperament. So many factors are different each time. It’s what keeps it fun. And challenging. And inspiring. Like life.

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7 Responses to “My challah journey”

  1. Anna Stevenson Says:

    I also grew up with my mom making challah often. Not every friday, but most. And I loved it – my whole family did.

    But I wonder now…breadbaking takes time. It’s hard to be a mother, and work a full-time job — and be expected to bake bread on Friday afternoon — as well as make dinner and everything else!

    So I want to celebrate challah but at the same time I’m wary of this nostalgic “mother used to bake bread” vision that floats around when we think not only about Shabbat but about all the meals we eat, and yearn for hearty, non-commercial, homemade fare. Because, in fact, mother is doing a thousand other things, and she just might not have time!

    Mothers out there — what do you think?

  2. Sharon Lebewohl Says:

    I make Challah almost every Friday and for me, it is a major part of the Shabbat experience. I also prefer to do all the kneading by hand, but that may be because I also love playing with my food. It is a very spiritual experience and it helps me feel connected with Jewish women all over the world. I love to light the Shabbat candles with the smell of freshly baked challah in the air. When my children were little, I gave them each playdough which became their make believe challah dough. Sometimes we shaped the dough into the letters of their names. While the dough is rising, I often pray or meditate and it is the time that I feel closest to God. My daughter-in-law is pregnant and it is important to her to bake challah every Friday, especially now. She is on bedrest, so we’ve been sharing the experience together, often right in the bedroom.

  3. Phyllis Bieri Says:

    Anna — I totally agree. If I were a single parent, baking challah might be impossible. It’s all economics. But it’s also about priorities. I have several students who mix the dough Thursday night and let the first rise happen overnight in the fridge. If I worked a full day on Friday and had my kids in daycare, I still couldn’t do it, though. Unless I had a husband who could shape the braids, or a babysitter, or a neighbor…. Did someone once say something about it taking a village? The nuclear family thing can be vicious, particularly for working women. I once considered quitting my very rewarding job because my family was not eating enough home cooked meals every night. I am incredibly lucky to be able to work 3 days a week. The whole family benefits.

  4. Phyllis Bieri Says:

    Sharon — I am inspired by your beautiful response. Thanks for reminding me to meditate a bit more, and be thankful for the process.

  5. Nigel Says:

    And all this challah-talk is making me hungry…

    :-)

    Nige x

  6. Edith Stevenson Says:

    My response is to my blessed daughter’s comments: I guess we all choose our priorities. I tried to work my schedule to be able to be home by noon or 1:00 on Fridays, to make the challah (yes, only most weeks, not all of them), and a slightly more special dinner for Friday night because that warm fuzzy feeling on Shabbat was more important to me than whatever work I might have still done the last day of the week. And when I started doing lots of cooking at the Shul, for Kiddush lunches, you kids reminded me how if I made our challah there, the house didn’t smell of fresh baked bread when you came home from school!

    And one totally different note, to add to Phyllis’ 10 year journey, filled with all kinds of errors and omissions: once I too forgot the yeast until the dough was all mixed. I thought I could sprinkle some on the dough, and just work it in a bit, let it rise, and hope for the best. It didn’t. I braided it anyway, thinking maybe in the baking it would become more than a pretzel. While it was Slightly better, it was definitely smaller than the usual. I told the family of my probable failure, and begged for forgiveness. I put the hard little thing on the board and covered with our precious cloth. After the Kiddush, my 10 year old son, with his budding sense of humour, lifted the cover to say the Motzi, and started out, “Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei rabbah……..” In playful laughter, I was forgiven.

  7. Noa Heyman Says:

    1/This blog is great! Ben and Anna and Phyllis, you were all right.
    2/Phyllis, might you consider posting your fabulous challah recipe? As one of your LimmudNY students, I am cautiously optimistic I may bake challah for a second time one day. It was truly superb.

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