"You’re doing what?"

"Every week?"

Family and friends have been bemused by my recent foray into challah baking. They’re delighted to share the spare loaves, but seem surprised that three months into 2007 I’m still baking a new challah recipe each week. Sharing has become one of my favorite unexpected perks of baking every week. There’s always someone who could use a little extra love, but that’s not why this mishegas began.

This year, as I’ve been studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I’ve come to realize what an important role Shabbat has filled; giving our week a sense of closure and our year a beautiful rhythm. Those of you who know me know that Shabbat dinner has been a special part of our family life for several years. The kids look forward to it and enjoy helping pick a special meal every Friday night. They also get to select a dessert- a weekly treat we enjoy on Friday nights alone. We light the candles, sing the blessings and enjoy making each week special.  This Hanukkah we got the Shabbat Box of Questions and each week we read one of the questions and each take a turn answering- a simple but meaningful way to start a discussion. The kids responses are sometimes silly, but more often than not take my breath away. As my studies progressed I wanted to add a new layer to our Shabbat observance but wasn’t sure how.

In the past, we received a weekly challah from our days at the JCC preschool, then after moving we would pick one out from the bakery or grocery store with mixed results. I occasionally tried baking challah but with so many recipes out there wanted to find the yummiest one. I try to write comments in my cookbooks each time I try a new recipe- noting results and family opinions. As I looked for a special challah recipe for Hanukkah I reviewed recipes I’d tried, looked on-line, pored through my pile of cookbooks and thought- I could bake a different challah every week and never have to repeat a recipe. That thought was quickly pushed aside as I settled on the recipes we wanted to try for Hanukkah.

As the new year approached, a fine time to make resolutions, I still wondered how to deepen my connection to Shabbat. So many loaves later I can’t recall the aha moment, but as I enjoy baking and searching for just the right recipe it seemed reasonable to commit to baking  challah each week and trying a new recipe each week.

Eleven weeks in and I’m so glad I made this commitment. We’ve tried 11 recipes so far, each very different; creating loaves of varying size, texture and taste. I’ve come to learn that for me an optional egg wash is anything but- we like our challah shiny, not dry. I’ve mastered the 4 strand braid which makes a loaf that "looks like it’s made at the bakery." One of these days I’ll splurge on some oval baking pans, but for now our loaves are free-form and just fine. We’ve shared our loaves with family, neighbors, teachers and friends. One week my mother was here to help me and it felt like old times sitting together, taking turns kneading when my arms began to ache- 4 loaves worth of dough is a lot to knead.  Sometimes I have little helpers who gleefully dump the flour or punch down the dough, but more often than not challah time begins after I’ve dropped our kids off at preschool and elementary school and return home alone. At first I played Shabbat music, but have come to enjoy measuring the ingredients, mixing and kneading in silence. It’s meditation, bubbe style, and it means more to me with each passing week. There’s no racing around or running errands on Friday morning- I have plans. While the dough rises I might start dinner preparations, do some homework, or just sit with a cup of coffee. It’s not enough time to start a big project or run to the store. Somehow instead of losing time to bake, I’m finding it. Nothing compares to the aroma of bread baking and everyone loves coming home from school Friday afternoon.

As the weeks pass and more friends discover my new passion they’ve asked me to tell them which recipe is the best- which the easiest and so on. So, much in the same way I jot down notes along the recipe in my cookbooks I’m going to try to share our challah experience on-line. If you have a favorite recipe you’d like to share I’d really appreciate it. If you’d like to join me one morning in my kitchen that would be nice too.  I’ll post soon describing the past 10 challahs, but here is a review of last night’s recipe(s)

This past week Emily got to pick a recipe and she chose "Challah with a Twist" from Tastes of Jewish Tradition by Jody Hirsh, Idy Goodman, Aggie Goldenholz and Susan Roth. This is a great book full of crafts, stories and recipes- an excellent resource, and it turns out an excellent recipe. The twist is a basic challah recipe with six options: Rainbow Challah, Honey of a Challah, Raisin or Nut Challah, Onion Challah, Traditional Sprinkling, Monkey Bread. I could tell as the ingredients folded together that this recipe would be a good one. The proportions were just right and in no time a smooth and silky dough was created. I wasn’t sure about the options Em chose but Rainbow and Monkey Bread Challah were both a big hit. I look forward to trying the other four variations in the future.

Challah04_crop_sm Rainbow Challah requires separating the dough into 4 strands then kneading in food coloring- next time I’ll be sure to wear gloves. We were expecting the dough to turn a uniform shade but instead it was streaked with bright stripes of red, yellow, green and blue. The loaf was enormous, colorful, and when sliced showed stripes of each color. Not for the faint of heart.

Monkey Bread Challah won raves from all the children- ten sampled and ten grinned from ear to ear. Anyone who’s familiar with monkey bread knows that you make little balls of dough, dip them in melted butter and then roll them, first in cinnamon sugar and then in finely chopped nuts. We had an assembly line and quickly rolled, dipped and filled our bundt pan with sticky, sweet balls. Not really challah, but not really bad either. A sweet treat I’m sure we’ll make again and again with spare dough.

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