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In Challah, Life's Lessons

There’s something about baking. It gives you the chance to reflect and practice patience. It’s a metaphor for life – overwork the dough and it will get tough, ignore it and it will return heaviness. Give it the right touch and pour your love into it and it will offer something curiously ethereal.

Baking is something my French grandmother just about did blindfolded. She never measured, yet her pastries were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. While some swear by weighing ingredients when it comes to baking, she used a coffee cup, and more importantly her senses. She’d say to me, “regardes bien,” loosely meaning “pay attention,” while smiling, knowing the results were going to be delicious. Her hands were wrinkled yet soft, both from hard work building her tombstone business and cooking for her family on a daily basis. She did it all calmly, patiently, mindfully, living a full life until her death at 103. She was brilliant at cooking off the cuff because the one ingredient she never missed to incorporate was love.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago on an unexpected trip to Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn. I could have been working that day, but decided to play with a friend instead. He introduced me to his friends and together we broke bread. At first I was too shy to take the food—their lunch—they so generously offered.

“It’s the Sabbath. Take. Eat,” said the man.

I took a first bite and though delicious the challah, it was the gesture that made it even tastier.

“Where did you get this challah?” I asked him.

“You like it?” He smiled.

“I love it. Is the bakery near?”

A half an hour later, he handed me a brown paper bag with a loaf of this beautiful water challah in it. I offered to pay. I was embarrassed to take it but he insisted. “Your money is not good here. Challah, you don’t buy. It’s a gift.”

I became fascinated with this bread, and the tradition behind it. A second visit, and it became an obsession. I wanted to learn how to make this delicious gift. I started looking for recipes, comparing them. Some had eggs and were loaded with honey or sugar, and nothing like the bread this man had shared with me. I kept looking, and found recipes for water challah. I read up on it, went to market, bought ingredients. Remembering my grandmother, I gave the recipe my own touch, incorporating some wheat flour, making a traditionally white loaf a bit more wholesome and somewhat nutty in flavor.

I created a recipe based on another and another. I rested the dough overnight, rather than bake it right away to tame that fresh yeasty flavor, which can be overwhelming. I cut the sugar by at least half because I craved savory instead. I kneaded the soft, stretchy dough, punching it down after each rise of which there were more than expected. I learned to braid it and let it be. Then I baked it until golden, and it gave back twice as much. And I gave it away with a story.

CHALLAH AND A STORY, Yields 2 medium loaves; each serves 8

A bread that keeps on giving, the crust golden, its crumb soft as a pillow, and light as a cloud; Take your time, let it grow slowly, punch it down and burst its bubbles, then knead it, bake it and share it with love.

{NOTE: weighing the flour will give you the same results every time, because the weight is the weight. When it comes to meauring, the way you pack the flour into the cup, tightly or lightly, sifted or unsifted, will result in a different texture every time. For the sake of consistency I give you a weight, which can be anywhere from 7 to 8 cups of flour.}

2-1/2 cups lukewarm water

1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup total; 2 tbsps to activate the yeast)

2 tbsps yeast (1 tbsp yeast for whole wheat flour; 1 tbsp fast rising yeast)

2 pounds unbleached all-purpose flour (no extra flour needed for kneading)

1/2 pound whole wheat flour

2 tbsps kosher salt

1/2 cup grapeseed oil

Love, copious amounts

1 large egg, whisked with a light drizzle of water

Sesame seeds to taste

1) In a large mixing bowl, combine lukewarm water, 2 tablespoons sugar and yeast. Stir it a couple of times, let stand until the yeast is activated and foams on the surface, about 30 minutes.

~Water represents openness and the ability to accept, surrender and flow…

~Sugar is to praise the sweet moments in your life while learning to forgive…

~Yeast allows for growth, taking in the lessons and earning your wisdom…

2) In another large bowl, mix the whole wheat and unbleached flours with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste), and salt. Mix well and dump in one shot into the yeast mixture. Add the oil then, with a wooden spoon, incorporate the ingredients.

~Flour is for the ability to bond with those you care about…

~Salt is to remind us to never take each precious life around us for granted…

~Oil warms the soul, and nourishes and strengthens our growth…

3) Knead the dough with love, until it no longer sticks to your hands, rolling, turning, folding it as many times as necessary, for about 5 minutes. (There is no need to add extra flour. The longer you knead it the more elasticity and the less it sticks to your hands). The dough releasing easily from your hands, form it into a ball.

~Love the only ingredient that will free you…

4) Oil a large bowl and place the dough in it rolling it about to coat it with the oil. Let it rise to double its size, loosely placing a clean damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap on top. This will take about 1 hour depending on relative humidity.

~Patience is key to living a fruitful life…

5) Punch down the dough, deflating it. Turn and fold it again a few times, forming it into a ball. (At this point you can refrigerate it overnight, allowing the yeasty flavor to dissipate, if you wish.)

~Relaxing is necessary for recharging and seeing things with fresh eyes…

6) Punch down the dough, turn and fold it and let it come to room temperature, about 1 hour. Turn and fold it a few times, shape it into a ball and split it in half.

~Rising is powerful but don’t let it go to your head, instead take few steps back and reflect…

7) Preheat your oven to 375°F for 20 minutes. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Split each dough ball into 4 equal pieces, rolling each piece into ¾-inch thick x 15-inch long ropes. (You should have 8 ropes all together, 4 per dough ball.) Braid 4 ropes together, tucking each end in when done. Transfer the braided dough onto a baking sheet. Repeat this step with the remaining 4 ropes and transfer to second baking sheet when done. Brush each loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350°F and bake for an additional 25 minutes, or until the underside of the loaf feels hollow when tapping it. Transfer golden challah to a cooling rack for 30 minutes before sharing.

For best results, share this gift weekly.

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