This is one of those topics where I feel like I’ve covered some of this ground before. If I have, my apologies. Twenty-one years ago this August 4, I met the woman who would eventually become Queen Midget. I’m not sure she knows that’s her title, by the way. I’d point out in the contract where it states that she would forever be known as such, but she claims to never have seen the contract. But I digress.
Queen Midget is Jewish. Shortly after we met I participated in my first round of Jewish holidays. The gefilte fish (blech!!!), the chopped liver (sort of blech, but at least manageable), and the challah. Back then, I was a novice breadmaker. Cinnamon rolls, basic french bread, and a few other things. I tried the challah and decided I ought to try to make some. For a long time after that, I provided the challah for most of the family events.
Fast forward a dozen years or so and I made the challah for my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. And for all of my younger son’s closest friends’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. People began to tell me I should make the challah for the synagogue’s Friday and Saturday services, but I begged off, unsure if I wanted to devote the time to it. Unsure as well if my challah was really that good.
The youngest Princely Midget had the last Bar Mitzvah among the family friends just about a year and a half ago. For those who don’t know, there’s a Friday service and a Saturday service involved. The Friday service is kind of the preliminary thing, while the Saturday service is where the kiddo leads the service, delivers the sermon, reads from the Torah and makes his or her mark. My challah was always for the Saturday service, a large loaf about two feet in length. I never provided the challah for the Friday service. So, I tried the store bought challah at the Friday service of my son’s Bar Mitzvah …
Oh, wait, I forgot something. The challah is prayed over or blessed or something like that at the very end of the service, after which everybody who wants grabs a chunk of the bread.
… back to that Friday service. I tried the store bought challah. Actually, it’s made by a local bakery. And, you know what? It tasted like nothing more than white bread braided and covered with an egg wash to look like challah. I tasted that challah that night and decided to listen to all who encouraged me to make the challah for the synagogue — a noble exercise being the non-Jew that I am. Clearly, the bakery did not put the quality ingredients I put into mine — eggs, honey, vegetable oil to produce a memorable challah. It was just white bread masquerading as challah!!! I contacted the synagogue administrator the next week and thus began my Friday evening mental health break.
I make the challah for a few months. I take a month off. I make it again for a few months. Take a month off. Friday evenings, I get out of work and spend a couple of hours in the synagogue kitchen making the two or three or four loaves they need for the week’s services. I make sure I have my music, frequently I ensure there are a couple of cold beers available for consumption, and I have my reading material for the rising periods. This past year I’ve also made loaves for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs when requested to do so. This isn’t entirely a charitable event. I charge per loaf what the bakery charges, but my loaf is better, bigger, tastier.
After taking the month of June off, I was back at it tonight. Three loaves, plus a couple of experiments as explained below.
People ask me why I do it … it’s that mental health thing. Most Fridays, I’m alone there, just making the challah and doing my thing. The last few months more and more members of the synagogue have learned who I am and have lauded my challah. So, I make challah — it’s good for my soul and it’s good for my ego. It’s a nice little moment between the workweek and the weekend.
Tonight, as I wrapped things up, the cantor came in. I offered her one of the extras. She told me how, during services now, people watch to see when the cover from the challah comes off to see if it’s mine and that there’s a discernible sigh of disappointment when they can tell it’s not mine. Now, I find that hard to believe, but I’m going with it. There isn’t a member of the synagogue who, when finding out that I’m the “challah-man” (maybe that should be the name for my next blog!), doesn’t tell me how great it is and how much they appreciate that I make it. So, there you go. I make the best challah in the land.
One of the other “traditions” at the family synagogue is that the 10th graders go through Confirmation and then go on a five week trip to Eastern Europe and Israel. It’s a huge undertaking and expensive. For a year, the kids and their families do what they can to raise money. This year, I’ve decided to contribute my challah making as a Rosh Hoshanah fundraiser for the Confirmation class, of which my youngest is a part this year. While challah throughout the year is a long loaf, for Rosh Hoshanah, the loaf is made round. The circle symbolizes a number of different things depending on what you want to believe — the circle of life, the cycle of the year that both ends and begins with the New Year, which is what Rosh Hoshanah is, or pick your circular symbolism.
I have no idea how many people will want to purchase a loaf of mine for their personal Rosh Hoshanah celebration, but I’ve got to be ready. The synagogue kitchen has two large regular ovens as well as two large convection ovens. I have not used the convection ovens for my challah yet, but if there is enough demand for Rosh Hoshanah, I’ll have no choice. On my own, using their two large conventional ovens, I can make about 20-25 loaves in four hours. If I get orders for more than 50 or so loaves, I’m going to need those convection ovens. So, tonight, I gave it a try. Here’s the end result.
I think the convection oven worked. It’s on to mass production.
And for all my local readers. You want a loaf of challah — $5, with all proceeds going towards the B’Nai Israel Confirmation Class of 2012-13. You know where to get a-hold of me.