Making Challah in a Pandemic

In the third week of my state’s stay-at-home order, a friend asked me to teach her to make challah via Zoom.

Challah, the traditional braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath and on most holidays, isn’t a complicated recipe. It’s not hard to make, as breads go, with most recipes using just flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt and oil. My mother made challah regularly, long braids during most of the year and round loafs for the High Holidays in the fall to symbolize the unbroken circle of life. When I was a little girl — ok, even for most of my adulthood — I knew challah to have only two varieties: plain or full of raisins.

I made my mother’s recipe for years, but when my daughters were just 5 and 2, I offered to host the Friday night Sabbath meal before my brother’s wedding, and I decided to make my friend Hilary’s challah. You can watch me tell the story of this very important challah here, but suffice it to say that the way I received this recipe — over email, just before she went to bed on the other side of the world — was dramatic and exciting and forced me, for one of the first times in my life, to improvise, guessing at the number of eggs I should use. My mother and I — who had never made a challah with no eggs — peered over the edge of the bowl after adding one egg, then another, and finally a third one, declaring this to be our best guess. The challahs rose in a warm oven, were rubbed with whisked egg and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked into the kind of loaves you see on the cover of Jewish cookbooks. They were gorgeous — chewy and sweet, delicious ripped in chunks from the loaf or sliced perfectly and slathered.

I made that recipe for years and years. I brought it to the Yom Kippur break-the-fast gathering to which we were invited for years, all to cheers from the other guests who remembered it from the years before. “Debi’s challah is amazing,” the hosts told everyone, and I glowed and beamed even while demurring. “It’s my friend Hilary’s, really,” I’d say. “Well, Hilary’s plus three eggs.” Continue Reading…

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I Was Made to Cook Like This

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No more restaurants, my husband and I said to our daughters when the stay-at-home order began. And no takeout. Just too risky.

But I’m a good cook — inventive, curious, mostly patient. I’ve been pressure-tested in ways that have made me adaptive and flexible. I understand substitutions on almost a molecular level because, for the first nine years of my daughter Sammi’s life, I learned to cook in a gauntlet of food restrictions I could never have predicted.

I learned to cook first without almost all forms of acid: no citrus or tomato or chocolate for my toddler with severe reflux.

Then I learned to cook without dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and wheat (all at once) when she was misdiagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis.

Eventually, worst of all, I learned to cook without fat after a surgeon nicked her thoracic duct after cardiac surgery.

So after all of that, cooking normal, unrestricted meals every night while we’re staying at home seemed like it would be no big deal. At first, it was exciting — unlimited time to make whatever I wanted. I even started a journal for the first time since middle school: a few sentences about our day and then a note about what was for dinner and what we watched on tv. My tone was light and my dinners were pretty impressive. I felt proud of the fact that my family could eat well — both in quantity and quality — with me at the stove.

Over the ensuing weeks, I learned to be careful about planning in a whole new way than I’d learned when Sammi was little. Now she and her sister Ronni are both teenagers, and instead of planning around holes in our diet from medical restrictions, I started planning around holes in our diet from grocery shortages. It was — and remains — nothing like shortages in the history of our country or the world; the stores are full of food, and after one fraught trip to our local grocery on March 19, we’ve been ordering our supplies online. They simply arrive at our door, where we sit on the stoop and wipe down package after package of treasures, but always, there are some things the grocery store doesn’t have. Continue Reading…

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Easy Valentine

easy-valentine

 

 

I spent Valentine’s Day at O’Hare Airport, mostly.

That’s the punch line, but the lead-up is that my husband David — my organized, thoughtful, careful, good-planning husband — usually does everything logistical for our travel. He always has. There are these clear, colored plastic file folders into which he has, for at least the last couple of decades, placed copies of our boarding passes and hotel reservations, photocopies of our passports, printouts of hotel reservations, lists of things to do. They have neat notes in the margins, sometimes (“spoke with Marla at the front desk, they will have a Pack-n-Play ready, 7/16). I used to get frustrated that it seemed like this was the only thing he ever did when it came to our travel — I packed up the kids, canceled the mail, used up the milk in the fridge, made sure we had sunscreen, and on and on, a mountainous pile of tasks, while he sat in his office printing things — but the truth is that his jobs meant we would always get there and always had a place to stay and (usually) appropriate beds for everyone. Continue Reading…

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There Was Joy

rear-view-mirror

There are so many things I had to refuse her.

I was newly a mother of two when a doctor – a kind doctor, a thoughtful doctor – told me that my new daughter would almost certainly end up in the hospital with every respiratory infection she got. Not a great idea, he said about twice-a-week daycare. Probably not, he said about baby-and-parent music classes. No, I don’t think so, was his answer to my hopeful questions about baby swimming, a smaller daycare, a playgroup. After two hospitalizations in her first five months, I believed him.

Through that first winter watched through front windows into an empty courtyard or through car windows into big sister’s preschool, my new daughter and I eyed the world with suspicion: me because it contained too many germs and her because nothing in it made her feel quite right. There was no sleep, no break, no time apart for the two of us to learn the beauty of missing each other and being reunited. There was just us, with the world outside the window a mystery.

The winter turned into years, isolated and treading water. Continue Reading…

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Self-Promotion Is Hard, and I’ll Do It

its-not-perfect-but-its-all-yours

 

Writer Jennifer Weiner published an essay in Publishers Weekly called “Deconstructing ‘I Wrote a Thing.’ Talking about the way women often share their work online by prefacing it with “I wrote a thing…,” it’s a lot like my own internal monologue. She writes, in part:

I wrote a thing employs the funny, ironic, humblebrag shorthand that is common across social media, but it also evokes a familiar posture: that of a woman trying to make herself as small as possible—a woman standing with her head down and her chin tucked against her chest, hands clasped behind her back, and toe twirling in the dirt, saying, “Oh, this little heap of words here? It was nothing. No big deal. Just, you know, a thing! So maybe read it? Or don’t! Whatever!”

There is nothing more familiar to me than this image she describes, one of a woman attempting to make herself seem humble, self-deprecating, unworthy of attention. I’m as guilty of this as I could be. “I’m doing a little storytelling thing,” I mentioned half-heartedly on my Facebook wall, just once before the event for which I was hand-picked, invited only after the producer had seen me tell stories on stage several times before. It was, if not a BIG deal, at least a medium deal. Still, I didn’t know how to say that aloud or in writing without sounding arrogant, so I didn’t say it at all.

The same thing — or worse — has happened when I’ve published essays. Here on this web site, I add the links to my “Published” page here and on my author site, and I share them on Twitter, where I have a lovely following of strangers and where almost none of my friends know I have an active account. To strangers — and especially to any agents or publishers who might stumble across me — I’m happy to be publicly proud of my work. To the people who know me for real, my constant fear is that they will look at the link and think: “Debi? Really? She’s Sammi’s mom, right? How did SHE get something published there? Maybe she knows someone…”

And, of course, that’s ridiculous. But that’s how imposter syndrome works. Continue Reading…

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