Challah


Ingredients:

  •  2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 packet of yeast
  • 1 tbsp. brown rice syrup
  • 5 cups flour (3:2 ratio of whole wheat to all purpose)
  • 1 cup soy four* (2 teaspoons is the equivalent of one egg)
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1 cup boiling water water
  • 3 flaxseed eggs (each “egg” is 1 tsp. flaxseed mixed in 3 tsps. water)
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • maple syrup and coconut oil, for brushing
  • Sesame seeds for garnish

Step 1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast with the warm water – yeast should bubble.

Step 2. In another small bowl, mash the banana until it is a puree.

Step 3. In yet another small bowl (last one! Sort of…), prepare the flaxseed eggs – flaxseed with the water. Let it thicken, then whisk again. Add the mashed banana. Add the vanilla extract. Add the vegetable oil. Whisk again.

Step 4: Using the small bowl from the banana puree, put the brown sugar and boiling water together. Stir.

Step 5. Transfer the flaxseed egg mixture, the yeast/water, the brown rice syrup and the dissolved brown sugar, as well as all solid ingredients (brown sugar, flours, salt) into a large glass bowl (note: put the flour mixture in slowly, cup by cup). Using your hands begin to knead the dough.

Step 6. Transfer to a floured surface and knead for 5 – 10 minutes (or until the dough is no longer sticky).  Add flour sparingly as needed.  Place dough back into the cleaned and oiled large glass bowl. Cover and let rise for at least an hour (but the longer the better – overnight in the refrigerator would be best).

Step 7. This recipe makes two small loaves. Separate the dough into two balls – and then each ball into 3 strands. Roll them out to equal lengths and braid as though you would braid hair. Connecting the strands by pressing one end together and under itself, take the strand on the far right; pull it over the middle strand and down. Then take the strand on the left side and pull it over the middle strand (which is the one just laid down). Repeat until you reach the end and close the braid the same way you opened it. Repeat with second challah.

Step 8.  (I personally went to get a professional silicon-baking mat just before I baked this challah, and I love it – so I’ll recommend that you use that under your baking tray, but parchment paper also works.) Mix maple syrup with room temperature coconut oil in a small bowl. Brush the loaves with this mixture (added sweetness and resulted in a golden-brown exterior).  Feel free to add sesame seeds or poppy seeds on top. Let the dough rise uncovered for 30 minutes to an hour. Preheat the oven so it’s ready when you’re ready to bake.

Step 9. Bake on the middle shelf for half an hour to forty-five minutes.  Rotate in the middle if you notice one side is darker than another.

Step 10.  Cool on a wire rack before slicing.  Enjoy!

* * * * *

It turns out that my first excursion didn’t take me too far away. Challah, in more ways than one, is a good starting point; its origins close to my ancestral home and its Jewish significance fundamental – powerful as a common denominator. Challah – adaptable, shapeable – is reworked and accepted in many forms for different holidays, in different communities. Generally, two loaves are brought out, covered beautifully before the community gathers over it in welcoming the Shabbat. HaMotzi, the blessing over bread, is recited and the challah is passed around the community, in synagogue, over the kitchen table, between friends, between Jews and non-Jews. It is passed by hand, and piece-by-piece, it disappears. Fluffy and sweet, it melts in the mouth.

In my research of the meaning and history of challah I discovered that the word itself comes from the Hebrew word, “portion” in B’midbar – Numbers – from the commandment that a piece of the first dough shall be the Lord’s. The word itself comes from the biblical command to separate 1/24 of the dough to give to the kohanim every Sabbath. It was only later in the Middle Ages in Europe that the name “challah” came to connote challah as we know it today. A local bread from Germany was appropriated for the purpose and is now the quintessential Jewish food. Before it was common to buy the bread just before sundown on Friday at a kosher bakery, Jewish women had a regimented routine – mixing and kneading the dough on Thursday, letting it rise overnight, waking up early on Friday to bake it. The home as a mikdash me’at (small sanctuary) is made more so by the baking of this bread. Even though I have only prepared challah twice, it is clear to me that it is deeply infused with ritual – baking it very much felt – invocative, I believe, of Temple service. Breaking bread is one is a focal point of Jewish life – as was baking it just a couple hundred years ago. The process of baking it, in and of itself, was a focal point, pulling the home together as the smell emanated through the house on Fridays. In some ways, the preparation of challah strikes me as just as moving as breaking it together – baking it as an internal, familial reminder, a ritual, something felt inside; consuming it a community binder, across potentially great divides.

The Torah portion this week is Numbers 1:1-4:20, B’midbar. In this portion, G-d orders Moses to counts the people Israel, designating their numbers, their placement, and their movement as they marched with the tabernacle in the desert. The placement and interaction of the Israelites prescribed by G-d sounds remarkably like a recipe to me. In the same way that you wouldn’t throw in unmeasured ingredients into a bowl and then the oven, you would not do the same in forming a community. There are measurements and processes – not because one tribe or gender or role is more important – but because the interplay across time and space changes by scope.

Later, separately, the Levites were counted and there given a special role, immeasurable, to stand guard around the Tabernacle of the Pact – in charge of its furnishings and everything that pertains to it, to set it up and take it down.  While other tribes were recorded, aged 20 and over, the Levites were recorded from the age of one month (1:3:14). I think it would be easy to assume they are more special, to be counted later, and in some sense, more fully, but the more that I think about this, the more I think that they were counted from a younger age because they are representative of yetzer ha ra – the good inclinations. If we’re trying to capture the holiness, the sparks of good, we should look farther and wider. Our count begins earlier. From the Levites, a separate census was taken of the Kohathites, the priests, from the age of thirty to fifty; they were given the responsibility to guard the most sacred objects (1:4:2-4). The census is small and specific – for the cultivation of our good is a long and arduous process, it’s an achievement made only later in life, through work and respected responsibility. While baking this challah, I’m left to meditate on the difference between the creation and the creator. In the context, what does it mean to be made in G-d’s image?

Through the desert, the Torah shows the work that comes upon realizing freedom – the cultivation necessary to establish a functioning community, to establish roles and peace among (or perhaps especially) one’s own community. Our everyday lives, sustaining ourselves with the food we gather and eat, grocery shopping, pitching tents, maintaining our shoddy rental homes in group houses, establishing the rules, deciding who does the dishes, takes out the trash, wipes the counters and the floors. These are the days of our lives. Just as my group house struggles to keep things running smoothly, this portion deals with that very same process – of maturing and establishing our adult, free, lives. In the desert, the Israelites became a people; they needed to establish themselves before they would be bound together by the covenant. This week I gave a lot of thought to the journey through the wilderness, and, as an introvert, I often resist the idea of community, but it is clear to me that is so important – integral to approaching the promised land – knowing who we are and where we stand, literally and metaphorically.

The counting and placement of the Tribes of Israel resonated with me as I simultaneously looked up challah recipes – vegan and non-vegan – and sought to understand what goes into the recipe, what ingredients and in what order, will result in making a bread that rises, that is delicious, light and flaky. In pulling together the different ingredients, the egg replacers, the completely new additions, and played with the proportions, I did so knowing already how those ingredients would interact with each other having seen other successful recipes. I created the baseline and began to work with new ingredients – though conscious and thoughtful of the potential reactions between the flour, the yeast, the flaxseed.

The fact of the matter is – ingredients swapped, eggs removed – the challah came out much like the challah I eat in synagogue or with friends – fluffy and eggless-ly sweet. This challah, like all challahs, is much more than the summary of its parts. Challahs are the loaves themselves, but, perhaps more importantly, they also are a reminder to consider (and reconsider) who we are, where we are, and what we do with one another – in other words, what goes in, and how, the ingredients are sifted together – what reactions will occur – and what might, or might not, rise as a result. I know if I tackled life in the same way that I approached this recipe – I would be significantly calmer, kinder, more loving, and, frankly, happier about my place and role in the world.

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