taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?