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.