My road to challah baking was in no way a smooth one. It was paved instead with bumps of denial and sloth and riddled with potholes of obtuseness and indecision. Eventually, however, the blind spots cleared and I began to focus on the destination.
Though I arrived begrudgingly, I felt like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat once I began baking challah regularly. How remarkable it was to have taken yeast and eggs and flour and transformed them into that! The experience was a week at the Canyon Ranch spa: the kneading recharged my body and the rising energized my soul.
I felt so darned smart for having decided to take the whole wonderful process upon myself. And to top it all off, I got a mitzvah every time I did it. I needed to rack up as many of those as I could.
I even loved shopping for the ingredients. On Thursdays, I was part of that club of women buying high-gluten flour, not ready-made challah, at our kosher market. The packaged may be delicious, but my children do not get to smell it coming out of the oven.
Each Friday evening, my husband grinned and swooned when I plunked the loaves down on the table. The boys loved them, too.
Until one day, they decided they didn’t.
We’d gone to friends for a Shabbos meal. While walking home, one of the boys commented that the challah had been delicious. There is no question. My friend makes great challah. This particular son was quick to add a “yours is too,” but the blow had already struck its target.
I worked up the gumption to ask if he preferred hers to mine. And then that little Brutus, the one who essentially orchestrated my challah-baking in the first place, betrayed me. With a hesitation I’ve not seen from someone as forthright as he is, he confessed that yes, he did.
When I asked why, he clarified: “It isn’t that your challah isn’t great. It’s that hers isn’t whole wheat. Real challah should be white.”
The brotherly chorus weighed in, too, in a rare moment of agreement. They told me that they were sure if I were to make white challah, it would be the most delicious thing they’d ever tasted. But I didn’t and they no longer wanted to suffer through something that smacked of healthy. It was detracting from the pleasure of the Shabbos experience.
Full disclosure: I use half white whole wheat and half high-gluten. I don’t make a health food store special that supercharges the GI system like Draino. It has eggs and sugar and honey. True, it isn’t white, but that’s been my recipe for as long as I’ve been baking challah and I couldn’t imagine trying anything else.
Now if you have ever baked for someone you love, you know that the worst thing he or she can tell you is that he or she prefers someone else’s baking to your own. You can prefer it to your own and say so. They need to keep such thoughts to themselves.
I know that my family enjoys my cooking. They tell me often enough. This complaint was directed exclusively at my challah. But my relationship with challah-baking was so fraught in its early days that, mitzvah or not, I couldn’t imagine carrying on with the enterprise unless I had a cheering squad accompanying the loaves’ exit from the oven.
Weeks went by, and the boys staged a quiet rebellion. They’d douse slices in honey to camouflage the whole wheat taste or they’d eat it while reminding me how much better my white challah would taste if I were ever to give baking it a try. Though their attempts at pandering failed, I did slightly up the high-gluten to whole wheat ratio. Still, I stuck to my old standard even in the face of dissention.
When one of the crew asked for store-bought, I knew that the whole wheat version was on its last legs. I began to slink away from the table downtrodden, disappointed in the whole challah-baking “thing.” What kind of woman would I be if I were to cave so easily? On the other hand, what kind of mother would I be to continue baking challah for my family while ignoring this one little request?
The following week I gave in, though not without pangs of regret. Trying to look at the bigger picture, I reasoned that the mitzvah would be mine, whatever flour I used. Can you imagine the boys reminiscing about their youth, saying, “My mom could’ve made the best challah, but she made whole wheat instead?”
Thursday arrived, and I tossed the high-gluten in my cart along with a bag of regular, standard, run of the mill, far removed from the earth wheat flour. I turned away from the bag of whole wheat in shame. They wanted white and I wanted to bake for them, so I decided to love what is.
I hadn’t told the boys beforehand. Their eyes lit up on Friday evening when they spotted the freshly-baked loaves of white challah. Not a dash of whole wheat in the pair. They were so happy! While watching them munch away with abandon, only I seemed to notice that the key ingredient was missing, and it wasn’t the whole wheat. It was that piece of me that saw the process as an extension of myself.
For weeks now, my heart just hasn’t been in it.
This past Thursday, I stood in the market and made a fork-in-the-road decision. I bought the white whole wheat and I baked it. Miraculously, all the joy came flooding back. There was that lilt in my kneading and the thrill of expectation as the loaves began to rise. I haven’t served the challah yet, so I cannot say what the critics will write. I imagine it won’t be a pretty scene.
Over the summer, I may try to find a regular flour recipe I can learn to love, a combination of ingredients into which I can knead a bit of myself. The younger two boys will be away at camp, so there will be some freedom to experiment. I can make smaller batches that will enable me to swallow my pride in manageable bites in order to make room for the better parts of me.
For now, though, the baking is mine, and I’m going to hang on to it a bit longer.