Last night, I made my first challah.
Well, technically, I suppose that isn't true. Technically, I made my first challah in pre-school along with ten or fifteen other drooling, malleable, yet-to-be-warped four year olds. We sat, fidgeting, in the arts and crafts room of our temple's pre-school, with germy, grubby fingers, waiting to dig into what we all must have assumed was edible play-doh. What emerged was hardly a culinary milestone. In fact, if you passed any culinary milestones at the age of four, please let me know as that sounds awesome, albeit highly unrealistic. That challah, that braided, rock-hard, salty mess that could have passed for a mezzuzah (for the goyem, google it), was technically my first. If you've never experienced a true challah, let me explain; challah is a traditional Jewish egg-bread that is eaten (among myriad other occasions) on Shabbat, the Sabbath. It is dense but fluffy, sweet but savory, and ideally comes with a shimmering golden crust, courtesy of a generous egg wash applied immediately before baking. I'm not a deeply religious person. I treasure my Jewish heritage for many reasons. But the bottom line is: I'm mostly in it for the food. For me, challah can be a truly religious experience.
Last night's challah was my first all-by-myself-challah.
Let me preface: I don't bake. As a rule. I'm not very good at it. I hate measuring. I hate math. For some, baking cookies or a cake is a great source of relaxation and joy. In me, however, it inspires soul-crushing memories of having to repeat Algebra II my junior year of high school. I mean, who knows how many ounces are in 3/4 of a cup?? It's like torture.
So much of what I love about cooking is improvisation. Seeing what goodies I have tucked away in the crisper from the previous day's indulgence at the market is sort of like opening a birthday present every day of the year. In baking, improvising is not an option. Maybe you can throw a handful of raisins into the batter here and there, but baking is an art which relies on precision. Precision being, let's say, decidedly not my forte, I once baked a sheet of cookies which melted into an entire SHEET of cookies.
So it was with great trepidation that I baked my first all-by-myself challah for my first all-by-myself Rosh Hashanah. This was not a choice, this was a necessity. This summer was spent on Cape Cod, and without realizing it, my sidekick and I stumbled directly into one of the only plots of land on the east coast with no Jews. So, you see, I HAD to make my own challah. I had no other choice.
I got lazy and didn't knead it for long enough. I think I may have added too much flour and too much honey. I transported it to work to bake it during the rising process. The stars were, as they say, against this loaf. But somehow, someway, it turned out like this:
The crust: beautiful. The inside: dense, flaky. The thing weighed about five pounds. So I've decided there can be only one of two explanations; either challah is the HARDEST baked good to screw up in the world, or, certain, benevolent, food-loving ancestors were looking down on this most bizzare of endeavors with a kind eye.
So, happy new year, shana tova and all that. Keep eating, I'll keep writing.