In our house, we are preparing for a bar mitzvah so Jewish conversations are on the uptick. There are study guides and highlighters, Skype lessons, disappearing vowels and new trope symbols. And like in any Jewish home, there are questions, debates and an abundance of opinions. Often times, the week swirls into a frenzy of activities leading up to Shabbat.
I try to bake challah most Fridays and get the dough on the first rise at a reasonable time, around 4 pm. But my challah routine had slipped in recent months. Although nobody was keeping score, the weeks without homemade challah crept into the lead and were running well ahead of the pack.
I love making challah—everything about it: the magic of the dough rising, the connection to ancestors, the smell in the house, the transformation of flour into something entirely different, the braiding, the eating, seriously everything. Despite all that positive pull toward the results, though, I sometimes find I have to push myself to do it.
A couple of months ago, after a break from challah making and a couple of purchases like a big container of sesame seeds, I started baking again. So much of Jewish life is about questions, interpretation and thinking, but sometimes I just need to go ahead and follow a commandment—just do it—already. And for me, baking challah is a really good one to follow.
I might start out in no mood to pull the flour out of the pantry and locate that tiny bottle of yeast somewhere in the fridge, but by the time the dough is pulling together—or during the braiding even—something shifts in me, and I love the process again. The hands-on creativity is sometimes the very key of switching from the flurry of the week into something a bit sweeter for Shabbat.
And even as my kids get older, they still love getting their hands in that dough, and can braid like pros, and I can almost imagine them doing it for their own children one day. But wait… Before too much thought goes into it, just gather the ingredients and go. It doesn’t have to be big picture, like connecting with the past and the future. It is sweet, delicious, freshly baked challah for this one Shabbat. That is enough—it’s plenty.
New to challah baking? There are many great tutorials online. I recommend Joan Nathan’s widely published recipe and this video tutorial to walk you through it. If you are looking for a smaller recipe, I recommend Leah Koenig’s Classic Challah from her cookbook Modern Jewish Cooking or Molly Yeh’s. Finally, this video tutorial inspired me to go for my first six-strand challah—they even make it look easy!
With any of these recipes, feel free to modify based on whims or ingredients on hand. I find you can add up to half whole wheat flour, stir in chocolate chips or cinnamon and vary the toppings.