Baking Challah Got Me Through 2020

Baking on Shabbat has not absolved me of my place in the world as a queer, Black, Jew-ish woman, but it has given me the space to breathe.

I’ve always been an extremely anxious person. When I was small, I would find myself sitting in the back of my mom’s Dodge Shadow minding my 8-year-old business, only to be suddenly overwhelmed by the knowledge that I, and everyone I knew and cared about, would be dead and gone someday. That feeling of unease has never left me, but up until March of this year, I was finally figuring out how to manage that sense of impending doom better.

Then the pandemic hit, my jobs disappeared overnight, and the Jewish community that I had become a part of only recently was scattered to the wind. My anxiety went off the rails, as did my depression, and I found myself feeling the loneliest and most useless I had felt in years as people in my city and all over the world were falling ill and dying in droves.

As I sat on my couch, day after day after day, reading and watching the horror show that is the news, seeing my Black brothers and sisters taking to the streets in protest of police brutality and systemic racism — all while in the face of a deadly disease that disproportionately affects Black and brown people due to the double-edged sword that is medical racism and a higher incidence of chronic health issues — I realized a few things. The anxiety eating me alive from the inside was helping absolutely none of these people, including me.

What did actually help? Baking challah.

challah 1
Courtesy of the author

At this point I should mention that I wasn’t born into my Judaism; I came to it in the midst of a period of sweeping change in my life. I had just been laid off from my first (and likely last) corporate job. It was the dead of winter and a few months after having reached out to a rabbi about the possibility of converting — and doing nothing with the information they provided me — I decided to see if I could find a learning space that would be willing to take me and my questions on.

The first class I ever took was about feminist Torah and was taught by the very same rabbi that I had reached out to all those months before. As one of my classmates said, “It was bashert!” In the midst of my personal crisis, I suddenly found myself right where I needed to be, surrounded by a community of Jews who didn’t give two shits that I wasn’t born into it; they only cared that I came with an open heart and a drive to learn as much as I could.

A year and a half after finding this community, COVID hit the world and our gatherings were no longer physically possible. I felt like my connection to everything was slipping right out of my grasp, including my connection to Judaism. Since I came into this community at a time when I was so painfully alone, I was afraid that things wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have people around me.

I’ve since found a wonderful queer rabbi willing to work with me through the conversion process, and through our talks, I realized that my Jewishness isn’t rooted solely in my community; it’s rooted in me.

 And so, for reasons I can’t explain other than that sweet things taste good, I decided that one way to express my Jewishness, as so many have done before me, was through food. I scoured the internet and friends’ brains for recipes on everything from gourmet Pop Tarts to homemade sprinkles and cakes so sweet they’d make your head spin. What ended up being my favorite thing to make, though, was the quintessential Jewish staple, challah.

The first loaf I made was a streusel covered monstrosity that ballooned over the sides of the baking sheet and looked like something out of a Goosebumps novel. I didn’t realize that the recipe I was using made enough dough for two loaves, hence the creation of my first ever challah that I call the blob. When I took it out of the oven, my roommate and I immediately burst into laughter at the sight of it. Neither of us had laughed like that in a while.

A few weeks, and many internet deep dives later, my bread-making skills were starting to improve. As I prepped my workstation on that Friday morning, I realized that for once, the thoughts that are normally racing around in my mind had quieted, if just for a moment. The act of measuring out the yeast, sugar, water, eggs, salt, and flour became a calming rhythm that helped soothe my tangled nerves for the few hours it took to make, knead, proof, and braid the dough. I felt like I had dialed into something that was surprisingly restorative and I was now looking forward to every Friday morning and the time I set aside in my day, time just for me, to bake. That week’s loaves were a significant improvement over the previous week’s, and one even made its way onto a neighbor’s dinner table.

I realized that what I was feeling is a huge part of the reason why we observe Shabbat. Yes, there is the religious component, the ritual of saying Kiddush and blessing the challah itself. But there is also the coming together of families, of couples, and in my case, myself and my roommate. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to be present and fully dialed into the moment, and if we can be present in these moments for our family and our friends, then why can’t we take that and turn it inwards? Shabbat gives us the space to take a breath, to center ourselves and re-evaluate our perspective, space that is a precious and scarce commodity in this day and age.

To be clear, baking on Shabbat has not absolved me of my anxieties and fears when it comes to the state of the world, and my place as a queer, Black, Jew-ish woman in it, but it has given me the space to think and to channel my energy into something that brings me joy. We’ve all been spending a lot of time with our own thoughts lately, and while it is important to dive deep into our psyches, it is also important to recognize when that dive might be consuming you. Sometimes, you just need to bake your way out of it.

I would be remiss to leave you without a recipe for my beloved challah. The recipe I use is adapted from Jewish&’s Zoom Challah Bake from earlier in quarantine, with a few helpful tips courtesy of Jake Cohen’s TikTok and Instagram. I hope that if you try it out, it will bring you some peace, if only for a moment.

Courtesy of the author

Challah

(Makes 2 loaves)

Ingredients:

3 tsp active dry yeast

2 tsp + ¼ cup white sugar

1 cup hot water

¼ cup Canola oil

1 ½ tsp kosher salt

2 whole eggs

2 egg yolks (save whites for egg wash)

3 ½ -4 ½ cups flour

Directions:

  1. Mix 3 tsp yeast, 2 tsp sugar, and 1 cup hot water in a large mixing bowl, place somewhere warm for 10-12 minutes.
  2. Add ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup canola oil, 1 ½ tsp salt, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks to the yeast and water mixture, mix well.
  3. Adding flour one cup at a time until you have a shaggy dough, on a flour surface knead until soft and smooth, about 10 minutes, place dough into an oiled bowl. Cover and let rise for 2 hours.
  4. After 2 hours uncover and punch down the dough, place back into proofing area (or oven on the proof setting) and let dough rise for a second time for 1.5-2 hours.
  5. After second proofing, turn dough out onto a prepared surface and split dough into two equal halves. Take one half and split into 3-6 equally sized strips of dough and braid. Repeat with the other half and place both braided loaves onto their own prepared baking sheet and brush with leftover egg white (add an extra yolk if you want that deep golden colour after baking!). Proof the braids for 30 minutes more.
  6. Preheat oven to 350°F (167°), paint loaves with egg wash once more. Cover with desired topping (i.e streusel, sea salt, sesame seeds) and bake for 30-40 minutes until loaves are a deep golden brown.

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