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My braided beauties

Overcoming perfectionism and procrastination to learn to bake challah

These are among Esther Kook’s first challahs.
These are among Esther Kook’s first challahs.

Back in the day, before covid-19 rained on our collective parades and social distancing became mandatory, we enjoyed sharing Shabbat meals with friends. When homemade challah arrived at the Shabbat table, the braided beauties always made a grand and regal entry, tasting extra special.

“When am I going to check this one off my bucket list?” I often would think.

“I don’t have time. And it’s so much easier to buy challah at the store,” were my two standard excuses. Under those excuses, however, were sneaky twin culprits: procrastination and perfectionism. They buzzed annoying and pesky messages in my ears, keeping me from taking the necessary action.

“What if they don’t taste right? And what happens if my challah refuses to rise?” perfectionism whined. “Maybe I’ll wait until the summer when I’m off from school,” procrastination countered. Those twins rejoice in the dance of what ifs and waiting for the right time.

Excuses flew by the wayside, along with so many other bits and pieces of our regular lives, over the past few twilight zone months. I was home. I had time. Going to the store for baked goods and challah in my new masked bandit gear just was no longer the fun Friday social outing it had been before.

As for those bothersome twin rascals? Well, we had a serious discussion about who was in charge here. Arriving at a consensus, all parties realized there was nothing perfect happening now anyway. Life was feeling messy, imperfect, and out of order.

So, excuses, be gone! Perfectionism and procrastination, kindly be quiet, and make way for some action. The only way that annoying pair ever stop and listen up, is through action and movement toward a goal. Sometimes in baby steps, always one foot in front of the other.

First, I found my local challah baking guru/cheerleader in Debbie Rosalimsky, a friend who lives in the community. She shared her tried and true challah recipe, and even gave me a bonus huge green bowl to mix the five pounds of flour. (Really, five pounds—isn’t that a lot of flour?) She also asked me exactly when I planned to begin, so that she could be on hand to field my questions.

Debbie shared her own challah story with me. “For many years, I spent a lot of time preparing beautiful homemade Shabbat meals,” she said. “I would go out and buy challah. Challah baking was an unknown. It was intimidating because I worked full time, and I thought it would be too time consuming.”

That changed when Debbie attended an organized challah bake. She realized immediately that baking challah was not as difficult as she had thought. From that point on, she began to bake challah each week and hasn’t looked back. Now, she can’t imagine her Shabbat table without homemade challah.

Her love for baking challah has only grown since then, and it has taken on deeper meaning. “What I love about challah baking is that it takes the mundane and elevates it to a spiritual level,” she said. “Every ingredient in the recipe is symbolic of a life opportunity and challenge. For example, the eggs represent fertility and the life cycle, flour is symbolic of sustenance, and water connects all the ingredients.

“When I knead the dough, I offer prayers for my family, friends, and the community. I pray for healing for the body and soul, peace in families, and economic help for families who are struggling.

Debbie is deeply passionate about the mitzvah and art of challah baking. She also is an organizer of community-wide challah bakes and conducts small group classes. She told me about a Facebook group she joined called “Challah Baking for Dummies.” She suggested that I join it too, and I recently did. I found that people from all over the world, from beginners to veteran bakers, religious and secular alike, share their challah baking tips, questions, and even braiding videos.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, was when I baked my first batch of challahs. Subliminally, was I shaking off those culprits and becoming more independent too? Perhaps other items on my bucket list similarly could be checked off? Mundane truth be told, on that day I just had fewer Zoom classes to teach. Yom Ha’atzmaut and challah baking worked well in tandem to continue to inspire me

Debbie promised to be on call for any challah emergency or explanation. With the ultimate can-do challah attitude, she was true to her word. For several hours, Debbie fielded my questions — left and right and in between. “Oops, it looks like I didn’t put the full measurement of yeast in. What should I do?” All the while, she cheered me on, “No, problem about the yeast. I’m so excited that you’re doing this. They’re going to be delicious!”

After I measured, poured, and mixed, I kneaded that dough for 10 minutes until the mixture transformed into a big, fat, gorgeous ball. Then I covered and tucked it with a wrap, like a baby, and offered a tiny prayer to please rise, despite being a bit short on the yeast measurement. For two hours, I checked in. Yes, that ball of gorgeous dough was growing, slowly and surely.

Checking and rechecking the recipe, I then divided my dough and began rolling and braiding into challah shapes. They were starting to look like the real challah deal. The five-pound recipe yielded six challahs and a few adorable rolls to go.

I was loving these challahs already.

It was time for the final act — the actual baking. Watching through my oven window, like an overprotective mom, I saw that sure enough, those challahs started browning. When they came out after about 40 minutes, I lined them up on my kitchen island. Side by side they sat, as I took pictures. Of course, I sent the first few pictures to Debbie, who exclaimed in her text, “They’re gorgeous!”

I had to agree, they were gorgeous, even though they weren’t perfect. Still, they were delicious and fresh, and made a grand entry, adorning my Shabbat table.

In my eyes, these were my own braided beauties, sweetly imperfect.

Esther Kook is a reading specialist, language arts teacher, and freelance writer. She lives in Teaneck.

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