He had taken a bite and was chewing slowly. I was waiting impatiently for him to give his first impression.
“It’s good,” he said slowly. “’Good?’ What does ‘good’ mean?” I asked.
“Good. Just good.” Maybe I was expecting too much from a small child. That was as descriptive as he was going to get, apparently.
The week before, he told me in passing that my challah was “just okay.” I found myself irrationally offended. I’d been making and refining my challah recipe for years. I thought I’d achieved perfection. After slightly increasing the vegetable oil and switching from regular to kosher salt, I had a tried-and-true recipe that pretty much everyone said was delicious. Plus, I make a special loaf for my kids that’s stuffed full of chocolate chips. What could be bad?
When I asked for more information, he said it wasn’t fluffy enough. His older brother heard and agreed with him. What?! How long had they felt this way? Were other people only being polite when they said they liked it? I was shook. I decided to take the feedback and run with it, to try several new recipes. But the first one was not a hit, as evidenced by the “just good” response it got.
I didn’t grow up making challah. My first taste was at a Jewish summer camp in Pennsylvania. The camp baker would stay up all night on Thursdays and bake dozens of loaves for Shabbat. I loved the squishy middle and smooth exterior. “Butchie the Baker” also made birthday cakes and various treats throughout the week, but it was the challah we all loved.
For a few years, I bought challah from Fishman’s each week – one plain, one cinnamon – and marveled when people made their own. Then a colleague offered to teach me how to make it. Her tutelage gave me the confidence to try other recipes. It also gave me something I hadn’t expected – a feeling of belonging in the Twin Cities Jewish community. Having strong opinions is part of Jewish culture and cultivating my own opinions along with a favorite challah recipe made me feel like I had found my own unique place.
Over the next few years, I worked to perfect my recipe. I joined challah baking groups on social media and talked to fellow bakers. I borrowed the Lincoln Del cookbook from the library. I got favorite family recipes from friends. I even cornered Mr. Fishman at a playground one day to ask about the recipe from his store! Mostly, though, I just kept trying. During the process, I shared different iterations with family, friends and even coworkers. I heard a wealth of varied and deeply held opinions about the essential qualities and characteristics of challah. Some of them I took into consideration and others I dismissed immediately. For example, I am of the firm opinion that raisins taste awful and don’t belong anywhere near a kitchen, let alone in my challah! Yet for all my beliefs (and yes, judgments), I met people with equally strong opposing opinions.
For me, baking challah has become part of my pre-Shabbat ritual. My current recipe is a bit of a mish-mash which utilizes different techniques taken from various sources, based on the results I like the best. I usually make two loaves – one plain, one with chocolate chips – and if I vary from that pattern, it’s often met with tears from the youngest family members, who are now sufficiently satisfied with the level of fluffiness in the bread. We gather at the end of each week at our kitchen counter to eat it along with grape juice. It’s usually a simple dinner because we’re all tired by Friday, but being together brings us joy and energy. Of course, noshing on challah studded with chocolate chips brings joy and energy too!
I suppose the iterations and various recipes I’ve tried have gotten me to where I am today, opinions and all – and given me a feeling of confidence in my place in the Jewish community. We can each hold our own beliefs about the best challah, as long as you don’t try to slip any raisins into mine!