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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OK Fine, I Get It

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No good deed goes unpunished, right? Isn’t that the saying?

I have never been a fan of those “my word of the year” nudges that start trickling in around mid-December. “What’s your word of the year for 2020?” It showed up, seemingly, EVERYWERE, this winter. I always thought it was kind of simplistic to boil everything down to one concept, as though my needs would never change over the course of twelve months, as though my scattered, low-attention-span mind could hold just one word in the front of it for twelve months and then, once it had a good, solid grip on it, be able to just release it and pick up another.

Besides that: I love words. How would I ever be able to pick one?

But then, toward the end of 2019, a lot of big change seemed to be coming for me and my family. I had finally signed a contract with a literary agent for the memoir I’ve written; my oldest daughter was a senior in high school and applying to college; my parents, who live far away, were beginning to struggle with some health issues; and I just couldn’t picture any longer what my life would look like in three months, six months, a year. When my kids were small, the path forward was pretty clear: fourth grade and then fifth, middle school and then high school; I’d work and make dinner and go to their soccer games and plays on the weekends. Even when my younger daughter’s illness made some things murky (would she ever eat well? would she make it through this next surgery?), I could imagine life on the other side even if I didn’t like what was coming. At the end of 2019, though, none of the next steps were predictable.

As the new year began, a friend invited me to her birthday party at a local boutique where we could make our own hand-stamped jewelry. (Side note: this boutique sells wonderful things and is doing online orders. It’s run by a lovely person who could really use some sales, so maybe buy some stickers or jewelry or a mug or some greeting cards!) At my friend’s party, I was trying to decide what to write on my little piece of metal.

I’d been talking with friends the week before about how I’ve been thinking about all this change coming my way, and knowing it was all too big and too much for me to control or brain-my-way through, I’d just decided to roll with it. 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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If Then That

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She was born fourteen years, six months, and thirty days ago, right on her due date, after a quick and powerful birth with most of the labor at home. She was 7 lbs 8 oz, two pounds heavier than her older sister, but we marveled at the similarities — her thick, curly black hair, her deep blue eyes, the slight jaundice that kept her under bilirubin lights for a day or two.

She came home and we all fell in love with her immediately. Her extra two pounds made sleep and nursing and everything so much easier, and it was like a dream compared to her sister’s nightmarish infancy. Like her sister, she was healthy and hearty, and in photos of the two of them at one month, two months, three months, they were impossible to tell apart. Until she got old enough for her eyes to turn the same dark brown as my mother, with long gorgeous eyelashes, they could have been the same baby.

At 12 weeks, I went back to work, photos of my two dark curly girls on my desk, side by side, baby and preschooler, carbon copies. Every few hours, I locked the door and pumped. Every night, I picked them up from daycare and buried my face into their necks that smelled like the daycare’s baby wipes, and we went home and ate takeout or macaroni and cheese and peas, with the baby gleefully nursing and then, eventually, eating jarred sweet potatoes and carrots and bananas and spinach. I felt a twinge of guilt — should I be making baby food? it doesn’t take that long… — but instead, we sat on the living room floor and cheered as the baby crawled between us, filling our time with each other.

I could have applied to graduate school, like I’d planned, but work was going well, so well that I thought I’d give it another year, not shake things up until the baby was two, or maybe three. I got a raise. “I can’t believe how well you’re doing,” my boss told me. “I was a wreck when I had my second baby!”

“Well, she’s a great sleeper,” I told her. 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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