Cooking hints at magic, unknowable forces that surpass the mathematics of even the most simple recipes. Butter plus eggs stirred over heat equals scrambled eggs. And yet, the summation can result in infinite variability, which I often feel defies even the definitive chemistry of food science.
Some mornings my eggs are dry and rubbery. On others, no less than luscious. A complex dance of forces both in my control and, I’d like to believe, beyond it.
This is never more true than for challah. Just about every recipe out there includes some combination of seven main ingredients—water, yeast, sugar, salt, flour, eggs and oil. But unless crafted by industrial machinery, the result is always slightly different.
The ultimate challenge for the Jewish home cook? To conquer all unknowable forces and create a perfect challah week after week.
There was a time I believed I had achieved it.
We were living in Arizona. Overlooking the rust-colored McDowell Mountains of Scottsdale from my kitchen window, I kneaded the dough by hand each week in the setting hours before Shabbat. Adjusting proportion, tweaking and tampering, I created a challah recipe that was divine.
I even began to feel God-like, as on the last day of creation when God looked out over all he had made, and saw that it was very good. My recipe was complete and I, too, could rest.
Imagine my surprise when I realized not only was I not omnipotent—I wasn’t even a decent baker!
Following job opportunities, we moved with our young children from the arid heat of Arizona to the swamp of Washington, DC. As soon as I unearthed my mixing bowls in my new kitchen in Shepherd Park, I threw together a batch of my tested and true challah, yearning for something familiar and reassuring in this new and strange land.
What I got was dough that was so wet that I couldn’t even braid it. I added cups of extra flour. It still didn’t hold together right. I ultimately poured the viscous dough into a tin pan and baked it as one round loaf. The texture was dense instead of airy and the taste was cloyingly sweet and unbalanced.
Devastated, or perhaps simply exhausted from the move, this early failure flung me into an emotional tailspin. Scared and suddenly lonely I began to question more than just my challah recipe. What had we done, leaving a good life for something so unknown? Would new jobs be fulfilling? Would our children adjust to all the changes? Would we find close friends again?
As I sang the Hamotzi over our store-bought challah that week, it occurred to me that in order to be happy in our new life, I would need to adapt old recipes and seek out new ones. In cooking, as in life, we must embrace change.
And so my journey towards a new perfect challah began. I started out cautiously, as we often do when we’re scared. I pulled out all my Jewish cookbooks and went through challah recipes one by one. None turned out as perfect as my perfect Arizona challah. Was I idealizing my old life?
And then, one Friday afternoon, in walked my answer—all three feet of her. My preschool-age daughter brought home a small challah loaf she had braided in class. We saved it to eat at the Shabbat table that night. After the blessing, I took one bite and turned to my family in disbelief.
“Have you tasted the challah?” I demanded. “It’s the best I’ve ever had!”
Now, as parents of young children, we regularly humor them and offer up little white lies to boost their budding egos. We nibble around the edges of their cooking creations, unsure whether those raisins might really be something else. But this time was different. The challah was truly outstanding.
Back at school on Monday I was like a bloodhound hot on a trail. I discovered that the dough had been made by the talented and lovely Chaya Wolvovsky, director of my children’s amazing Jewish Montessori school and co-director of Chabad of Silver Spring.
It turned out that her recipe, too, had taken a journey. It was a version of one she had received from her sister-in-law, who had received the recipe from her mother. The dough was ever-changing, with each transmission bringing new edits and adaptations.
Challah is a bridge between the mundane and the holy. It is a symbol of the journey we take week after week to improve ourselves and our world. Twisted and braided, it echoes our humanity…our failures, challenges and accomplishments as we move through this life. And at the end of this twisted bridge every six days is Shabbat, magical, unknowable and containing the possibility of perfection.
Enjoy this delicious recipe, and with the courage to embrace the unknown, set out on your own challah journey.