rest is in the recipe
Photo by Gayle Squires.
PresenTense’s food column, I was told, needed a photograph of a freshly-baked challah to accompany a challah recipe and “a
Rosh Hashana meditation.”
They lost me at meditation.
I’m not spiritual. I giggle at a mere whiff of hooky kooky. Michal (the “meditator”) happened to be here in Boston, and I invited her over for a little baking. When Michal knocked on my door, I was on the phone, my 5 p.m. teleconference having run late. I invited her in, offered her a drink and anything else she could find in my refrigerator, and then promptly disappeared into my home office for another 20 minutes.
Phone in hand, but computer off, I finally rejoined her in the kitchen and we settled down to work.
She explained that her challah recipe was less about the ingredients and more about the process and experience.
My phone rang. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.” Phone cradled between ear and shoulder, I pulled out eggs and yeast from the refrigerator, and continued my call, opening one of the silverware drawers and pointing toward the measuring cups and then running back to my office to draft a quick email.
Upon my return, Michal was measuring out ingredients, rifling through my cabinets to find what she needed. “Good, you made yourself at home.” I put my phone down at the far edge of the counter.
I reached for my KitchenAid mixing bowl—and she said we could use the bowl, but we wouldn’t be using the mixer. We’d be kneading it ourselves.
“Right. I forgot about that part.” I switched to a regular bowl, added the ingredients, and we waited for the bubbles.
Michal explained the theory behind what she calls “deep breath baking.” She views the baking of challah as an allegory for the week: The reward for hard work is a period of much-needed (get it?) rest over Shabbat. She recommends preparing the challah with intention and attention, savoring all the senses stimulated by the look, feel, smell,
We decided that our challah would be filled with the intentions of love and groundedness.
Once the yeast had proofed, we measured out flour, salt, oil, water, and eggs and began to mix. After a few swipes with a wooden spoon, I dug in with my hands. I turned the shaggy dough out onto my counter and began to knead. Michal’s technique for kneading dough starts not with the arms and shoulders, but with the entire body, taking a bracing stance and rocking back and forth with the dough.
She explained that kneading the dough strengthens the bonds between wheat proteins to form gluten and create elasticity. She instructed me to breathe deeply, taking advantage of the elasticity of my own lungs and filling them to capacity.
I built up a rhythm: inhale—lean back—scoop and gather dough, exhale—lean forward—push dough, inhale—back—scoop and gather, exhale—forward—push.
For the next 10 minutes, I focused on the rocking motion, watching my hands push and pull the dough. It reminded me of how I feel when I roll out pastry dough. Calm. My mind free and uncluttered. I found myself thinking of little more than the back and forth and the responding dough.
Michal emphasized that rest is in the challah recipe. When she normally teaches her deep breath baking course, she spends the hour while the challah is rising to lead a yoga class. Participants often arrive to her class armed with a mat.
Despite my misgivings, I didn’t escape the meditation part. By the time the challah was in the oven, I was ready. We braided the loaves, doused them with egg wash, and loaded them into the oven. While the air filled with the sweet scent of bread, Michal led me through two meditations, one to help ground me and another to open up my heart.
The timer buzzed. I felt invigorated.
We enjoyed the fruits of our labor.