We are fast approaching one of our major, most work-intensive holidays: Pesach, or as known to non-Jews, Passover. It is a time of remembrance, a time of celebration, a time of cooking! During the seven days of Pesach, our entire diet changes because we must divest ourselves of all leaven, or chumetz as we say in Hebrew. This is not an easy task. You would be amazed at all the products that have leaven, and every bit of it has to go! In the weeks leading up to Pesach, we are meticulous about cleaning all the leaven out of our homes, and out of our lives. When that is done, we then prepare creative and oftentimes fantastic meals sans leaven to get us through the holiday. I am no different. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a busy time for those of us who observe Pesach. I take this opportunity to share with you a blog written weeks ago and never published, about a baking experience (baking, the second doldrums buster on a list of 26, as listed in a recent blog.) The following was the last time I baked “challah” before starting to clean for Pesach.
I do not consider myself a great cook. That does not mean that I cannot cook a good meal, but rather that cooking is not my passion, even though I read cookbooks like some folks read novels. As much as I enjoy reading recipes, however, I never longed or worked to become a proficient cook. Ask my kids. At best, I can cook a decent meal once or twice a week. But those times I cook enough to feast on for two meals, then keep us in leftovers for days. I cook “dishes” well, meals adequately. This fact does not bother me in the least. I know my strengths and am content to say that cooking does not go in the “strengths” column. I have not always been so self-confident. In my world, women strive to be “balabustas,” to outdo each other in the “matronly” arts of housekeeping and cooking. Not me. Don’t get me wrong. I actually admire and have a great deal of respect for those women who seem to manage a household and the myriad chores with aplomb, not to mention organizational skills that a CEO would envy. In past times, I felt bad that I was not one of those women. In recent years, however, I have allowed myself to be myself. My talents, skills, knowledge, passions, etc. ad nausea lie elsewhere. Having said all of this, I hasten to add that I am a good baker. On occasion, baking gives me great pleasure. I can concentrate on making one dish well rather than trying to coordinate a full meal. To me, even though I am not particularly fond of the kitchen, baking is a relaxing activity. As wonderful aromas fill the kitchen, I mellow out. It is no wonder that for me, baking is a great doldrums buster.
Last week, in preparation for the Sabbath, I decided to bake challah, bread that has come to be associated with the Sabbath and Jewish holidays and celebrations. Actually, the challah is a piece of dough that by Jewish law is set aside for the Kohanim in the temple. (Kohains are the temple priests, full time; can’t earn a living elsewhere while serving in the temple. They and their families have to eat, so we the people have all sorts of laws about what portions of our various foods have to go to the temple to feed the priestly families.) However, since there is no temple at the moment (may that soon change), and in order not to forget our obligations, we still take a small piece of dough to be burnt so that no one else will eat it. In that way, when the temple is rebuilt and the Kohainim return to their priestly duties, we will not forget to give our portion for their sustenance. Therefore, if one is being technically correct, challah is that piece of dough which is separated, burned and tossed aside. Customarily, however, we call the loaves of bread “challah” indicating that challah has been taken. Technicalities!
As I was saying, I decided to bake challah. Additionally, I wanted to be creative since we had overnight guests coming for the weekend, as well as additional guests for the meals. So, I turned to the Parsha reading for ideas. (Parsha is the portion of Torah that we read, study and learn each week. It is read in its entirety every Sabbath.) The week’s Parsha was about Moses going to Mt. Sinai to receive the luchos/tablets. When he came back to the people (40 days later) and saw them dancing around the golden calf, an idol they had made in his absence, Moses angrily threw down the luchos, smashing them to bits.
Ahhh, luchos! I then and there had a “light bulb” moment, and decided that I would shape the challah into luchos. Since our weekend guest was Sephardi Jew (origins in the Mediterranean area), I would bake challah associated with that area. It is a wonderful bread, using pumpkin to help the bread stay moist, and spiced with cardemon and ginger, spices native to our guests “neck of the woods.” Full of flavor and a beautiful color, thanks to the pumpkin, this bread is a favorite in our household. Additionally, I could easily make enough to last us till Passover. I lovingly prepared the dough, knowing that I was going to shape it into loaves that resembled artists’ renderings of the tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai.
After the challah was shaped, I painstakingly formed the Hebrew letters on top to give the bread more of an appearance of the tablets. I thought about the parsha and what those tablets mean to us, the Jewish people. I am not usually that creative week to week, but this week was different. We are approaching Pesach, one or our most treasured, as well as work-intensive holidays. Preparing the challah reminded me of how we were formed as a people. Once the challah had risen, was brushed with an egg mixture to enhance it‘s color during baking as well as “glue“ the letters in position, I placed the loaves in the oven to bake and let the aroma waft through the house. That aroma, by the way, lasts for hours. When done, and I removed them from the oven, I couldn’t help but be pleased with the product of all the loving care and attention I had put into making this week’s challah. After the loaves had completely cooled down, I wrapped them to keep them from drying out, placed some loaves in the freezer for future use, and set the others aside for our Sabbath meals. The sense of accomplishment was enormous. Contentment and satisfaction of a job well-done was reward for my labors. Once completed, I was free to do some house cleaning in preparation for our guests. Doldrums busted big time!
That night, Thursday night, I fell into bed exhausted. However, it was a good exhaustions that comes from having worked hard and having something of substance to show for my labors. This was truly going to be a wonderful Sabbath. When my head hit the pillow, I was gone. No waiting for sleep on this night!
Around 3am I sat up with a start. The challah! I had made one major error this week in my efforts to be creative for Shabbos!!!! The letters! Jewish law, known in Hebrew as “halachah,” forbids us from breaking, destroying or otherwise changing letters and words on the sabbath. How were we going to slice the challah for our meals? We could not, would not, break apart the letters on Shabbos.
Friday morning, during the hubbub of activity both preparing for the Sabbath and getting ready for guests, my husband and I were brainstorming how to cut the challah that evening and the next day. As it turned out, Richard had no problems cutting between the letters. And no one who ate at our Shabbos table complained of the extremely thick slices of challah they each received. And, fortunately, the letters so lovingly made of dough and placed with care on each challah loaf, were easily removed without harm. All the fretting was for naught, and I learned a lesson. No more luchos shaped challah with Hebrew letters for us, at least not for Shabbos!
Doldrums busted! The activity of baking the bread, followed by the angst and excitement of how to cut the challah, coupled with the joy of sharing our home with special guests chased those doldrums away.