November 21, 2018

How Challah Changed My Life

This is a story about bread. This is a story of how learning to make this bread changed my life; maybe even saved my life. 

As a busy physician, mother, wife and daughter, I had been overwhelmed. Taking care of everyone else, I had somehow forgotten to take care of myself, too. Until one Rosh Hashanah over a decade ago, when a friend suggested that I make challah for the holidays. To me, it was such an absurd suggestion. How was making a challah going to help? 

And over 10 years later, I am still making challah. This journey has meant so much to me that I’ve written a book about it, “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” which fittingly is being published during the Days of Awe this year.

Every Friday, I make challah in time for Shabbat dinner that night. Often, I even make it on the road when we are traveling over Shabbat. When I started making challah, I just made three-strand braided loaves. I didn’t initially realize that challah shapes vary for so many reasons: There are round challahs and hand-shaped challahs; there are challahs shaped like Moses’ tablets and Haman’s triangular hat. Each shape has a meaning, yet another reason that I love this bread that not only nourishes us physically but also nourishes us spiritually.

Growing up, I knew of two different shapes: round challah at the New Year and the more frequently available braided loaves, usually three- or six-braided. There really is a time and place for everything, including the shape of challah. At the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and for the start of each new month (Rosh Chodesh), we create round-shaped challah. No debate. Circular shapes signify the cycle of life. No beginning, no end, just straight-up continuity. Not wanting to mess with that, I finally mastered the round challah after a few misguided attempts during several previous Rosh Hashanah holidays.

The first try a few years ago consisted of me rolling the dough out into two long snakes, twisting them into a long coiled rope and then wrapping that up in a circular shape. It worked. Sort of. I couldn’t replicate how lovely a similarly rounded challah looked at my local bakery and the inside did not cook all the way through without making the outside too crispy. I had not yet discovered the role of the thermometer!

Later on, I took my responsibility more seriously. I researched it, I practiced and, ultimately, I let go of my original method. Getting serious is complicated business. No more two-snake round challahs for me; I use four pieces of dough per challah now. Once rolled out, I spread out the four coils, two by two. Next, I crisscross two coils over and under the other two. Now I have a grid: imagine it — almost like a cross or an X shape with two coils sticking out in all four directions. 

Then the fun begins. Choosing to go counterclockwise the first time (though you could choose either direction), I cross one end over the other end of each pair, then reverse direction and do it all over again. Sounds complicated, and the first time the execution frustrated me. But, oh, the results looked divine. Pulling the oven door open ever so slowly, I saw inside a perfectly golden round challah with a crisscross pattern on top. Hooked, I made round challahs that entire week for all of our visiting friends and family. Each time, it worked; each time, I couldn’t believe it worked.

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner once more, I am already getting excited to try my hand again at a round challah. It may take me a few lopsided attempts to get it right, but that’s OK. That’s what making challah every week has taught me.

Adapted from the book “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” to be published by She Writes Press in September.

Beth Ricanati is a Los Angeles-based physician and writer.