I don’t do flour.
That’s been my kitchen rule for a very long time. I cook, and I’ve learned to prepare and master many a tasty dish for the Shabbat meal, but when it comes to baking desserts or challah, then it’s hello to my friends, Butterflake, Zomick’s, Zadies, and Sterns.
Cooking, I’ve always felt, seemed more aligned with my personality. It could be extemporaneous and a bit more forgiving — a little more of this, a little less of that, let’s eyeball the amount — than what I perceived to be the more precise, rigid, and scientific art of baking.
Besides, sweets and other baked treats never beckoned me the way that a good meat and potatoes entrée did.
That explains why it was only very recently that I baked my first-ever from-scratch challah.
Unlike her mother, my daughter, Shaina, often has expressed interest in baking. So when the opportunity came up to join in a neighborhood women’s challah bake following Passover, I signed us up. It is a tradition for some women who bake challah for this particular Shabbat to include a ke y — in Yiddish a shlissel — inside their loaves. The key is a symbol for unlocking good things and blessing in the coming year, and the challah has been come to be known as “shlissel challah.”
So we went. Wearing my signature black clothes (oy! the flour all over!), we assembled that evening with a roomful of lively women, all there to have their kneads and their needs met. Each one of us had a five-pound bag of flour, oil, sugar, eggs, water, yeast and all the other necessary ingredients and was instructed on what to do.
When we all introduced ourselves, I announced that this was my first time, a challah maiden, if you will.
Shaina seemed to take to it very easily. I was a tentative student, but got into the moment. We learned about separating the challah, and making the blessing, and of giving good thoughts and love to the act of preparing the special bread. There was camaraderie in the all-female gathering. It was like a party.
It was getting late, and tomorrow was school, so we couldn’t stay for the braiding demonstration. We put our dough into large plastic bags, and carrying more than 10 pounds of challah dough, went home. (It was like carrying a baby!) Instructed to put everything into the refrigerator until baking time on Friday afternoon, we did.
By the next day, the dough had broken through the plastic and was climbing up the refrigerator wall. It was crazy, I was a little alarmed, but I figured that it was normal. So we pushed down the again-risen challah, and when we were ready to bake, Shaina took to the Internet to find how to braid it. She found a variety of shapes and took over the lesson giving. I wanted to make a big, fat loaf, and did so, while she shaped hers artfully.
Before the challahs went into the oven, Shaina filmed them pre-baked and shared them online. Of course, I took our well-washed house key, wrapped it in aluminum foil, and inserted it in one of the challahs (the big fat one — which actually didn’t bake all through).
Needless to say, the house was aromatic with the smell of freshly baked challah. It wafted to the outside. It smelled like Shabbat.
When served, those loaves were oohed and ahhed during our dinner. They were also gobbled up. It was a wonderful experience.
We also have plenty of frozen challahs and dough left over in our freezer that we could enjoy for many Shabbats to come.
And if not, hello my friends.