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.”

Eventually, I could make this challah recipe without consulting the recipe. I could get the dough ready and rising in fifteen minutes, walk to the elementary school to pick up my kids, and return to the tell-tale smell of yeast and sugar. “Challah!” my daughters yelled as they dropped their backpacks. When they got older and started to help me in earnest, my older daughter was furious that I no longer measured the flour.

“I know how much it needs,” I assured her. “I know what good dough should look like.”

“But how will I know?” she pleaded.

As I wrote in this article for Kveller, there’s not really a perfect recipe for challah — sometimes the kitchen is too humid and you need more flour; sometimes the eggs are smaller and you need less. Children, too, are different, and there’s no good recipe for raising them right. That picture at the top of this post is of my daughters and my mother, holding the challahs we made together. Going with my instinct, sticking with what I knew — that’s what got us those beautiful loaves.

Until these last few months, I was sure there was no way to improve my challahs. They were divine. Why would I ever look at another recipe? When my friend asked me to help her make them via Zoom, Hilary’s was the recipe I used. By then, I’d started resenting all the cooking I was doing, stuck at home, not yet ready to try takeout, but since I was going to make challah anyway, I reasoned, why not make it with a friend? Two weeks in a row, we made challah in our respective kitchens, iPads and iPhones propped in cabinets, showing each other our mixing bowls and lopsided braids. It was fun, and the warm smell of baking challah filled my house with the familiar feeling of home, comfort and calm between my fingers and under my palms, dough like the feeling of my infant daughters’ bellies, dry and warm and full of potential. When I lay my hand on it after its first rise, I could feel the humid warmth inside sweat against my palm, fully alive. Two more times, I made my/Hilary’s challahs on Zoom.

But shortly thereafter, the first friend whom I’d taught challah-making on Zoom added me to a Facebook group that was slowly cooking their way through a new cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker by Shannon Sarna. Each week, the group chose a recipe from the book and shared their progress, tips and tricks and funny stories about life in their own kitchens. The first week, the recipe was for what sounded like a sacrilege: a challah with rosemary and garlic.

Rosemary and garlic? In a challah?

I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a Friday night meal with anything but my challah, Hilary’s challah, the one that bound us across continents and oceans, the one I’d made my own. But it was just one week. It was a week with so much work in it, so many pandemic-web-site-urgent-requests for my business, that baking these challahs was going to be my only period of peace that day. I took a deep breath, chopped some garlic and soaked it in olive oil, and set about learning a new recipe.

There’s something about baking challah that drops my shoulders, fills my lungs a little fuller, smooths out my forehead. There’s a reason people say making bread is therapeutic — it’s messy, it’s tactile, it’s a connection to the living beings in yeast and the ancestors that made bread before us. It’s rewarding, and this garlic rosemary challah in particular smelled absolutely spectacular.

And darn it. It’s my new favorite.

Since then, I’ve tried several other challah recipes in this cookbook, and adapted my own, substituting basil for rosemary one week. I’ve made cherry chocolate chip challah and cinnamon challah and plain challah and challah-wrapped veggie sausages. My husband made homemade bagels from Sarna’s cookbook. I made a chocolate cinnamon babka for him, also in the cookbook, and though babka is his favorite, not mine, I loved the way it looked, symmetrical and asymmetrical at the same time.

And I love the heck out of this cookbook, and the new ways it’s bringing me to love baking, much in the same way that Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar steered me back into love in the kitchen after my daughter went through a long elimination diet. Being able to cook for joy, for comfort, for calm, is a gift I don’t take for granted.

Being able to make my own bread makes me feel like I’m hiding a secret: it’s easier than it looks, more satisfying than I would have ever predicted, and cheaper than store bought bread or therapy. And this week, which marks what’s known in my progressive Jewish community as “Pride Shabbat,” I made an onion challah, dyed with some of the colors of the LGBTQ+ flag. After all, as I’ve learned, challah is adaptable, like me.

This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of This week’s prompt was “Staying calm…”

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4 thoughts on “Making Challah in a Pandemic

  1. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never baked any bread at all but wow, this post makes me want to make challah. I love the way you came around to it being adaptable like you are and love love the rainbow freedom flag colors. Also, I know exactly what you mean about beginning to resent cooking during the pandemic. I don’t think I’ve run the dishwasher as often as I do during this pandemic ever before. So glad you wrote and linked up!

  2. I do not generally bake – I love to cook though! This here: “Being able to cook for joy, for comfort, for calm, is a gift I don’t take for granted.” Is me too – especially right now. Thanks for the bread baking journey and I LOVE the pride version at the end.

    • Thank you, Mardra! The “pride challah” is harder than I expected — not sure how to get the colors more saturated. I guess there’s more adapting required!

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