A baker has risen

A baker has risen

Teaching challah-making helps our writer define himself along with the loaf

Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer with a major media company. He lives in Hoboken.

Gerard Soffian shows off the fresh-baked challah he made at Charles Rubin's challah workshop.
Gerard Soffian shows off the fresh-baked challah he made at Charles Rubin's challah workshop.

In June I found myself sidelined from gainful employment for the first time in 24 years. I had no commitments, no prospects, and plenty of idle time. My advantages were a generous severance package providing my regular salary into next year, good health, no debts, and health insurance.

It was a situation ripe for mischief.

Forty plus hours a week architecting and supporting large scale computer systems had left me largely unprepared for the unexpected hiatus, and the first weeks of not having to rush to the hurly-burly of Times Square were unsettling. I continued to wake at 6 a.m. to my morning routine of a run through my hometown of Hoboken and a hearty breakfast. Then it got quiet. Too quiet. While I love to read and catch up on NPR news, I had no circle of friends to chat with, and few pressing tasks to get done. I had only the prospect of hours in front of the laptop scanning job postings or connecting with old colleagues to fill the time until my wife came home from work and we could resume our regularly scheduled programming. This did not feel sustainable — but I had a plan.

Since the mid 1980s, my wife and I have owned a summer cottage in the western Catskills. It’s on a lake, with great hiking, biking, and boating, all right out our front door. Even better, we lived in a tight-knit community that came alive during the summer months, with people getting away from their city lives and ready to play. Past years had seen us as mostly weekend visitors, with an occasional one-week vacation thrown in. This year, I had no obligations blocking me from decamping for the months of July and August. I had my bike, my hiking shoes, and my kayak. By the end of July, I was bronzed and had dropped 12 pounds.

Yet the idleness still nagged at me. The outplacement consulting that came along with my severance package encouraged us to have a “pitch” and an “ask” ready at all times. The pitch, I was told, starts with a statement of who or what you are. For many of my cohort at the weekly support meetings this one was easy — attorney, product manager, asset manager, data architect. I did not have a ready answer. I knew what I had done over my career, but in the context of my mischief-making summer, I didn’t know if that particular soul-crushing activity was what I wanted in my future.

Then a longtime neighbor casually asked me about my challah recipe.

I’ve been making challah, the traditional Jewish Sabbath bread, for more than 30 years. I started out just to see if I could succeed, and it quickly became a tradition in my household to make it, wherever we found ourselves on a Friday afternoon.

A youngster learns how to braid strips of dough for challah.

What I’ve learned is that it is not about the recipe. It’s about understanding what it’s supposed to look like, feel like, and sound like. I found that wherever I lived — Brooklyn, Boston, Israel, or western Sullivan County — the ingredients were different, altitude might play a part, certainly the water was different, humidity and temperature all were variables. I knew in my gut that this couldn’t be relayed by a recipe book but needed to be experienced. Tentatively, I asked some of my summer neighbors if they would be interested in a hands-on challah-baking workshop, and if they would be willing to pay for it. Six people, my guess at a reasonable class size, agreed immediately.

After years of weekly challah-making I can just about prepare it in my sleep, and sometimes I virtually do. My routine has been to wake at 5:30 a.m. on Friday morning, mix up the dough, and set it out for its first rising. My wife would get home from work at noon, punch it down, and let it rise again until I got home. I then would braid and bake, and with luck, it would be ready for our Sabbath table by sundown. There, its overwhelming fragrance, delicately braided design, and still-warm loaves make the tableau feel holy, even to non-believers.

My challenge in offering a workshop was to compress this full-day process into 90 minutes.

This is where my training and experience as a systems engineer paid off. Project execution demands that many disparate parts of a problem come together at the right point. The solution to our baking workshop was not to have the participants walk through every step, and certainly not to have them wait around while the dough did its thing and rose. I needed to concentrate on what I know is important about making perfect challah — how it should feel, look, and sound. A baker had to feel the smoothness of the dough when it was kneaded sufficiently, see what “risen enough” looked like, and hear the sound that a perfectly baked loaf makes when you rap it on its bottom with your knuckle.

So I concentrated on what the students really needed to experience. Mixing, kneading, punching, braiding, and baking, yes — but I did the intermediate steps. I prepared dough for everybody, before they got there, so they could see what it would look and feel like when it was risen. I had a loaf ready to go into the oven, so they could see and hear what a fully baked loaf was like, and — the best part — they could sample what this time-tested recipe would taste like. They got to get their hands in the dough and braid their own creations and, of course, there had to be product to take home to share with friends and family.

Computer systems never are finished. There are always bugs to fix, features to implement, documentation to write. The breadmaking process is just the opposite. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the process, while flexible, is predictable. More importantly, it is a hands-on process. Sure, you can use a bread machine and achieve excellent results, but the experience of enveloping your hands in dough — sticky, living, unreasonable goo — is transforming.

Golden and browned, Charles Rubin’s challah is ready for Shabbat.

I saw a rising panic among the participants in my workshops who never had experienced this before. The small group size allowed me to coach them — “add more flour, flour is your friend” — and watch as their shaggy masses turned into smooth orbs that later became artistically crafted loaves.

For days after the workshops, participants would share stories of baking anxieties, wonderful French toast breakfasts, questions about variations in the recipe. (I strongly encourage experimentation.) I gave four workshops throughout July and August, with about 20 students overall. In the days before and after the workshops I thought about how I could impart the technique and joy of the experience. What anecdotes I could share? What historical reference should I provide? What religious significance should be interspersed?

I’ve been urged by those who learned and those who heard about it to continue to offer the instruction. After the first session, which had me sleepless the night before, I was exhilarated. At the end of the session, as 12 perfect loaves emerged from the oven, I was awed, and so were the newly initiated challah bakers. For that moment in time, none of us would have been stumped by the who or what we are statement.

We were bakers, carrying on a centuries-old tradition of baking with a purpose, and learning to transmit that legacy to friends, strangers, family, and the curious for generations to come.

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