For some reason I can’t explain, I recently plucked from my shelf of cookbooks one that my mother had given me decades ago. Jewish mothers gave copies of Second Helpings, Please, published in 1968, to their young adult daughters, perhaps in the hope that one day they would become balabustas just like themselves. But that never materialized in my case (as friends will surely attest).
Cooking and baking were never high on the list of my accomplishments. But that began to change when I took a second glance at Second Helpings, Please. Thumbing through the tabs, I stopped at the section titled, “Bread, Rolls & Muffins.” I have no idea what divine intervention was at play, but a balabusta was in the making.
I just happened to have all the ingredients on hand to make what the book describes as “Challah (Prize- Winning Recipe).” The yeast in the fridge was teetering on the edge of its best before date – now or never, I thought.
Bread making, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart: one needs time, patience and upper-arm strength. One must be adept at kneading, punching and braiding. Kneading was no problem, as I conquered that tricky activity in pottery-making class; punching down the incubating organic blob was somewhat more alien, but equally satisfying, though I couldn’t help but wonder about the optics: something wondrous was coming alive, and here I was beating it down. Not a good feeling. On the other hand, burying my hands in sticky dough – moulding something elemental and earthy – felt great.
After watching the dough rise for a second time, I applied the knife, cutting the fleshy creature into three equal portions stretching lengthwise. The elasticity of the dough was impressive – it felt like it was fighting against me (fortunately, it tired before I did). After braiding, I squeezed the ends tight, brushed the entire body with a mixture of egg yolk and water and placed the parcel into the oven to complete its life cycle. Soon, intoxicating smells wafted throughout the house, drawing even my cat Herschel from the comfort of his sofa perch to the kitchen. His pink nose twitched as he watched me gently remove the dark honey-coloured loaf from the oven. As I cut into it again, the knife separated layers of what seemed like cotton fluff, all warm and inviting. Luckily, its texture and taste matched its beauteous outer appearance.
The entwined arms of the loaf seemed to be begging for a hug. I dare say that I resisted, but there’s no denying that I felt a rush of love for my creation. That felt appropriate because in Jewish tradition, the challah braids share love, enwrap truth, peace and justice. Our challahs are deep, no doubt – in various forms, they might stand for the 12 tribes of Israel, or, in the case of the round loaves we eat on Rosh Hashanah, the continuity of life.
Indeed, this bread has had a long life: the word “challah” originally referred to a portion of bread dough that was separated before braiding and offered to the Kohen – a mitzvah. The modern meaning of challah – describing a type of eastern European bread – entered the language in the 15th century and was adapted by Jews for Shabbat. With its historical twists and turns, it’s no wonder that the bread visually resembles the strands of its intricately woven past and multiple interpretations.
There’s no doubt store-bought challahs will still enter my home from time to time. But now that I’ve made one myself, I’m determined to try diverse recipes – testing, tasting and sharing my newly coveted staff of life. As for my first experience, I have to thank my mother. Somehow, without knowing, and certainly never expecting, her gift was a mitzvah, too.