It’s not the sort of anniversary that you make a dinner reservation or buy a card, but it’s a noteworthy milestone nonetheless. Ten years ago, I bid adieu to the kosher bakery and began baking my own challah.
The story of how this came to pass is a family legend. One Friday evening, my son announced at the Shabbos table, “Why don’t you bake challah? All of my friends’ mommies bake their own challah.”
Now this was the biggest fattest lie he’d told in his few years on the planet, which I knew because I’d seen those mommies on line at the bakery with my own eyes. I still worked an intense full-time gig in an office then, commuting to the city at an ungodly morning hour and returning in the evening well after dark. While I enjoyed fresh-baked challah when friends made it, I stood firm in my belief that store-bought was a delicious second best, certainly good enough to make baking it myself a time suck I couldn’t afford.
My son came in for the kill. “I bet your challah would be the most delicious!” And just like that, I caved.
I mean, it’s not like he was asking for an expensive toy or more television. He wanted me to craft something with my own hands, something to enhance our family observances, something that would create indelible childhood memories. I still didn’t know when I’d find the time, but I told him I’d give it a try.
I was off to races soon after, searching for the perfect recipe
while attempting to master the technique. For months, I couldn’t get it right. I produced plaited loaves that rivaled cinder blocks in weight and corrugated box in flavor. Eventually I did succeed, and light, honey-sweetened challahs have emerged from my oven ever since, smelling–as challah does–like the World to Come.
Challah baking became a habit before long, even as I kvetched under my breath about the energy required to pull off the enterprise. We fell into a routine, the dough and I, like an old married couple who share a gentle intimacy, all but buzzing with excitement at a passing touch.
Several years ago, I acknowledged that I was no longer baking just for my family. I’d come to value the process for exactly the reason I’d demurred in the first place: time. Challah baking cannot be rushed. There’s too much waiting involved–minutes required for the yeast to proof and hours for the dough to rise. All that lingering was like purgatory to me. I wanted to make the dough, braid the loaves, and get them in the oven as quickly as possible so I could get on with the rest of my life. But like the Shabbos for which I was baking in the first place, the process steadily carved out an island of time in my week. While I don’t sit there and watch the challahs rise, I find myself slowing down on the day I bake, staying close to home, moving my laptop into the kitchen to write nearby.
I pray, too, soaking up the spirituality in the dough while separating the required piece–known as taking challah–before shaping the loaves. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, that bit was reserved for the Kohanim (priests). Today, I set it aside as a reminder that my blessings–even my time–are not exclusively my own, a lesson that resonates deeply for a busy mother.
A decade and a far better recipe later, one passed along by a friend, I’m still baking. Time has not dimmed the glimmer in my family’s eyes when we pull off the challah cover and bless the loaves, nor the joy I get in baking them. As it happens, my gym is around the corner from the kosher bakery, and when I pass by on Friday mornings, inhaling the glorious aroma wafting out into the street, I am reminded that the difference never lay in the taste. It always rested within me.