Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Tomorrow is challah-making day. On the one hand, I love challah-making day, because challah-making is one of MY mitzvot, something I, the wife, am supposed to do. It’s another chance for me to perform a mitzvah and pray for people close to me who could use a little help. Plus, I make a yummy challah (if I do say so myself…). They aren’t pretty, but they’re tasty. Seems to happen with all my food. Tastes great, doesn’t look so great. Ah well, in the end, it gets eaten, and we all remember that it was delicious, but we don’t remember what it looked like. Unless I take a picture. The only reason I don’t always look forward to making challah is that it is a lot of work and can be frustrating, depending on how ambitious I want to be.

Also, there was that one time I opened the bag of whole wheat flour and found moths nesting in it… That wasn’t so fun.

But anyway.

I make challah about once every three to four weeks. It’s fairly time-consuming, although a lot of the time spent is just in the waiting for the first and second rises. It really takes about 10 to 15 minutes to make the dough, then, depending on how ambitious I get about braiding, and how many loaves I plan to make, it can take about half an hour to shape the loaves. In between, it rises. Then goes in the oven.

Somehow, I always manage to forget that they will get much bigger while they bake. You’d think that after enough times making challah (which, while I haven’t been doing it for years, I have made my fair share by now), I would remember that. I always think the loaves look so puny on the sheet pans, but then they come out and they’re these massive golden loaves, and I feel rather proud. Also, did I mention that they taste good?

Bread-making tends to be either a completely mystifying process or something incredibly mundane. To me, it was very mysterious to me how one would go about actually MAKING bread, while at the same time remembering that people have been making bread for millennia, so how hard can it really be? Now that I make challah regularly, I see that it’s really a pretty simple process, and only the ingenuity (or lack thereof) of the baker limits the flavors and shapes of the bread when it comes out of the oven.

Challah is just egg bread, not any different in basic makeup than most other kinds of bread. The challah part is not the recipe (of which there are gazillions) or even the shape (though a 3- or 6-braid is most common and most recognizable). The challah is the “separating,” which is performed just before the dough is divided and shaped. You make a dough, using at least five pounds of flour, you let it rise for a while, and then you take a small handful of dough and separate it from the main body of dough while saying a blessing. THAT is the “challah.” You are then supposed to burn that bit of dough so that it becomes inedible. This represents the part of dough that was set aside for the priests during the days of the Temple.

One thing I’ve learned is that bread-making is very forgiving. As long as you have your initial yeast slurry at the right temperature, your dough will rise. How it tastes and its texture is largely up to your balance of sugar and flour and how long you knead it, then how much work you do with the dough before you’re finished shaping it. Finally, how long and at what temperature you bake it matters as well.

Now that I’m confident in my basic technique and in the recipe I use, I’ve been experimenting a bit. My favorite variation so far is adding za’atar to the top of the challah after doing the egg glaze. It smells SOOOO good while it bakes, and it adds just a bit of flavor. Za’atar is an herb and spice blend that is very common in Middle Eastern cooking. There are many variations, but it almost always contains oregano, sesame seeds, thyme, marjoram, and salt. It’s delicious. You should try it. You can get it from a Middle Eastern store, a kosher store, or online.

And, since I’m sure you’re dying to know, HERE is my challah recipe. Well, not MINE, per se, but the one I use:

Yeast Slurry:
1 cup warm water (around 110 degrees, or feeling only slightly warm to your wrist)
3 packets of dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water and mix in sugar and flour. Let sit until it foams. (This is called priming the yeast. If it doesn’t foam within 5 to 10 minutes, your water was too cold or too warm and you need to start over. If your yeast isn’t primed, your bread won’t rise, so don’t bother continuing.) Trust me, you’ll know when it foams. It’s quite dramatic.

2-1/2 cups warm water
¾ cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 tbsp salt
12 – 14 cups of (all-purpose) flour (or about 5 pounds)

- Add water, oil, sugar, eggs, and salt to primed yeast mixture and mix well.
- Gradually add the flour. I usually start by adding 3 or 4 cups then mixing it together well with a wooden spoon before adding more. Then I do 2 cups at a time until it gets hard to mix. Then I do ½ to 1 cup at a time and mix by hand.
- As long as it’s sticky, continue adding flour. I’ve found that if I end up with more than about 13 cups of flour, I like to add another ½ cup of sugar to balance the flour. Otherwise it’s not as sweet. Depending on how dry of a day it is, how packed your flour was as you measured it, and many other factors, the exact amount of flour you’ll end up using can vary a lot. Basically, you’ve added enough when it sticks more to itself than to your hands.
- Knead for about 7 to 10 minutes, until dough is springy but not tough. This takes practice to get just the right feel to it. You want to be able to work with it, but you don’t want it to spring back on itself when you try to shape it. (Note: You’re not shaping it in this step, but the kneading is the most important part to get the right texture.) Make sure all the ingredients are mixed well together.
- Oil the top of the dough and cover with a towel. Let rise for approximately 2 hours, or until it’s about doubled in size. It’s best to keep it in a warmish place. It will rise faster and better.

Separate Challah:
Do this step if you are making challah for the mitzvah and not just for the fun of baking bread (which is a perfectly valid reason to make challah, in my opinion).

Take approximately one ounce of the dough in your hand but don’t pull it away from the dough yet.

Say the following blessing:
Baruch atah hashem elokeinu melech haolam, asher kidishanu bemitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hafrish challah.

Then pull the bit of dough away from the main body of dough and burn it. I usually wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in a hot oven until it’s burned. You shouldn't do this if you are currently cooking other foods in the oven.

Now you’re going to shape the loaves.

Divide the dough into as many pieces as desired. You could make two huge loaves or eight small ones. I recommend doing an even number if you’re going to use them for Shabbos, since you need two whole loaves for Motzi.

Flour your work surface and your hands, and keep some flour handy so you can reapply as needed. From here, you can shape them into whatever shapes please you. I usually go with a simple 3-braid, which is done the same way you’d braid anything else. Divide your dough into three parts, roll each part into a long rope, and braid. It is also traditional to do a 6-braid, which I have yet to master. You can find video on YouTube on how to do a 6-braid, or you can ask your rebbetzin to show you sometime. It’s beautiful when done properly. Do keep in mind that the more you do and re-do your shaping, the more you’re working the dough. After a while, it can get hard to do anything more with, and the texture changes.

Place the loaves on cookie sheets. Keep in mind that they will grow a LOT by the time they’re baked, so leave space. When I do six loaves from this recipe, I do two per sheet and bake them in shifts, since they don’t all fit in my oven.

Leave them to rise for another half-hour to an hour. They’ll get bigger.

Preheat your oven to 350.
Make an egg glaze – take one egg, beat it, and use a brush to glaze the tops of all the loaves. This will make them brown better. One thing that’s fun to do is add a little sugar to the glaze. It further sweetens the challah and makes it a little sparkly. Now is also the time to add other decorations/flavors, such as za’atar, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, etc.

Pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350. Remove when big and browned. The exact timing and placement also varies depending on your oven, so this may take a little experimentation also.

Enjoy the smell of bread baking in your home, and especially enjoy EATING the challah! YUM!

Whole Wheat Variation:
I do NOT recommend making the whole dough with only whole wheat flour. If I want to include whole wheat flour, I do the first 4 or 5 cups of flour as whole wheat and use white for the rest.

Adding additional elements to the dough:
I haven’t tried this yet, but you can add chocolate chips, raisins, nuts, dried cranberries, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Just knead it into the dough before you leave it to rise the first time, then follow the recipe as written.

I hope I’ve managed to demystify challah- and bread-making a bit. And think how cool it is to be making something that Jews have been making for thousands of years!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Footloose and Dairy-Free

A good friend of mine is trying to eliminate, among other things, all sources of dairy from her diet. She was soliciting advice for substitutes and alternatives to dairy products, as well as non-dairy versions of her usual recipes. One thing she specifically requested was a recipe using ground beef that was non-dairy, because they were moving in a few days and needed to use up the ground beef in their freezer.

This was surprising to me, because in my own personal context, I would never cook ground beef with dairy to begin with, and I couldn't fathom a world in which you wouldn't know how to make a dish without dairy. It occurred to me then to suggest to her that she invest in a kosher cookbook, because any meat recipe in there would be guaranteed dairy-free. I also told her to look for kosher symbols that indicated that a food was pareve, because, again, guaranteed dairy-free, without having to decipher a long list of ingredients for dairy “code words.”

My father, too, has been dairy-free for quite a while now, and he has found the kosher symbols particularly useful. My father doesn’t keep kosher, and my friend is Christian and thus doesn’t need to keep kosher, and yet, one aspect of kashrut became useful to them for health reasons.

I suppose the thing that struck me most was not knowing how to cook without dairy. I understand that most people very much enjoy dishes that involve both meat and milk products all mixed together, like cheeseburgers, burritos and enchiladas and quesadillas, Egg McMuffins, and so forth. It’s one thing to be used to eating such foods, but quite another not to know how not to eat them. I suppose, the fact that I’m used to mentally rewriting recipes to be kosher (see my bacon post a few weeks ago) makes it easy for me to see a world without dairy. But for someone who has always been able to eat whatever is put in front of her, without having to ask after the ingredients, it must be a big, scary new world.

This dairy-free issue came up with another friend and reader (*wave*) as we were discussing cake recipes. There are degrees of strictness when it comes to keeping kosher, and she is quite a few degrees above my own level of observance. For people at her level, it is almost mandatory to make desserts pareve. One reason is that many strict kosher-keepers will only use dairy products that are chalov yisroel, meaning that a Jew has watched from start to finish to ensure that only kosher milk went into that product. It can be hard to find chalov yisroel products, depending on where you live, and so it’s easier just to avoid the dairy altogether. Another reason is that since typically at least one meal per day will be meat, it is useful to have a dessert that can be served afterward (i.e., not a dairy dessert). (Feel free to let me know if I’m off the mark with what I just said here…)

Anyway, she knows all kinds of dairy substitutes. I made a red velvet cake for myself for my birthday, which involves butter, cream cheese, and buttermilk (among other decadent ingredients). I have no idea how the cake would taste if you substituted margarine, Tofutti, and rice milk and vinegar, respectively, for those ingredients, but I suspect not quite the same. Last week, I made a Paula Deen Mississippi Mud Cake, which was also heavy on the dairy. My friend told me all the substitutions she’d make, and we were discussing whether it would taste as good. I think it would work out.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Duncan Hines cake mixes are largely non-dairy and kosher pareve, so if you’re into the cake-mix scene and have to go dairy-free, you’re good to go.

I’m not saying it’s easy to be dairy-free. We’re a cheese-loving country (and, heck, I’m a cheese-loving person!), heavy on the dairy products in general, and dairy sneaks into places you’d never think to look for it, like breadcrumbs. You never know when a restaurant might be using a dairy product where you wouldn't expect to see one. Sometimes, even items marked as “non-dairy,” like non-dairy coffee creamers, are not actually 100% non-dairy. But with a little savvy, you can find that dairy is not as necessary as it seems. And if you need to know some good dairy substitutes or non-dairy brands, I know someone you can ask!

Judaism has given a lot to this world, and it’s always exciting to see new ways in which Jewish observance impacts non-Jews in a positive way.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Boys and Girls

Recently, I was invited to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party. The girl was turning 5, and I felt it was only right to get her a toy. Now, as the mother of two boys, I have absolutely NO experience with five-year-old girl toys outside of what I played with when I was 5. And I don’t remember being 5.

See, boys are easy. Buy them a truck, any truck, Tonka is good, and they’re happy for hours. But the “girl toy” section at Toys R Us was absolutely intimidating. There are whole SERIES of toys – Barbie (of course), My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Littlest Pet Shop, something to do with fruit, Easy-Bake, Cabbage Patch Kids, pink, pink, and pink, and pink – and I was seized with this fear that if I bought a toy from a collection that this girl didn’t already have, then I would be causing further toy-clutter, and maybe she wouldn’t like it. But, BUT, if I got her a toy from a collection she already likes and plays with, maybe she would already HAVE that toy, and then what?! At this point, I decided that this is why G-d invented gift receipts, and I committed to a smallish Polly Pocket toy. I hope she liked it.

My point here, in case you haven’t figured it out, is that boys and girls are different. I don’t care what anybody says. Boys and girls are different, men and women are different, and this conversation is over. I don’t buy for a second the “socialization” aspect, that if you raise a girl and a boy in a vacuum, and let the boy wear pink skirts and barrettes in his long hair, and make the girl wear a three-piece suit and play with trucks, that somehow they will not show the same gender distinctions that my boys show compared with my friends’ girls. (I’m speaking in generalizations here. I fully respect that some women/girls identify more with “boy” things, and vice versa, but stay with me, I’m getting somewhere important.)

I’ll give you an example. My 18-month-old son loves trucks more than anything, except trains. He loves trains more than trucks. He started pointing out every truck we passed on the road long before I ever started pointing them out to him. I bought my sons a toy stroller and baby doll, which they both fully enjoy pushing around, but they do not play with the baby doll and stroller the way their female friends play with the baby doll and stroller. They carry the doll around by its neck and like to throw it. Sometimes one pushes the stroller while the other pushes a walker, and they race. There was the time my older son decided to “nurse” the doll, but that’s not his usual play method. He did have a pink blankie for a very long time – it was his favorite of all (six) of his blankies. So I don’t necessarily feel that I’ve limited them to only “boy” colors or “boy” clothes or “boy” toys. But the day I watched my 18-month-old playing with a little doll carriage from a Polly Pocket set, pushing it around on the floor and making the “brrrrrr” noise that he uses for trucks, well, I was convinced that boys and girls are just DIFFERENT.

I say all this to make the broader point that men and women are also different. This is important. Men and women are different. They have different needs, different interests, and different roles to play. I’m not for a second saying that men and women are not EQUAL. They’re just DIFFERENT.

In the United States today, we have this complex that if men and women are to prove that they are equal (or, more accurately, if women want to prove that they are equal to men), then that means they have to do all the same things. Men should be able to stay home with baby, women should be able to be CEOs and governors and presidents, men should play field hockey and women should play football, men should sew and cook and do laundry and women should be out there trimming trees and fixing roofs.

But this creates a big problem, because women and men are not the same. Did I mention that? Women can’t do all the things that men can, and men can’t do all the things women can. It’s just a fact of life. And the result is that women are expected to do all the “women” things and the “men” things, like have babies and care for them while at the same time working 70-hour weeks. I’m sorry, but it just can’t be done. So if the woman gives up her 70-hour weeks as a high-powered lawyer so that she can stay home and raise a strong, successful child, then she has somehow given in to the misogyny of the ‘50s. But if a woman goes back to her 70-hour weeks as a high-powered lawyer when her baby is six weeks old (or chooses not to have a child so as to focus on her career), then she is somehow a failure as a woman or a mother.

She can’t win. And by extension, men can’t win, either, because they’re expected to be home to care for the kids but also to bring home the brisket. My husband, for example, would like nothing more than to be home to cook dinner for the kids and help put them to bed. But his job, which is by far the larger portion of our combined income, requires him to work fairly long hours, and he is rarely home in time for the kids’ bedtime. The upside is that he doesn’t have to be in to work until around 10:00, so he is able to get the kids ready in the morning and make them breakfast, which many men don’t get to do. So it’s not a total lose-lose.

Judaism recognizes and celebrates the differences between men and women. From the perspective of the feminist outsider, women in traditional Judaism appear somehow inferior. They are “forced” to cover their bodies and hair. They aren’t “allowed” to read Torah or lead prayer services. They have to sit separately, behind a wall or curtain. They’re not educated in Torah study.

But what no one mentions is how traditional Judaism actually views the role of women. In no way does traditional Judaism subjugate women. Women are considered to be more spiritual than men. Men are viewed as having more difficulty controlling their baser instincts and therefore need more structure and more laws in order to get closer to Hashem (G-d). Women, on the other hand, are considered to already have the spirituality to connect to Hashem without being dictated to.

What it boils down to, then, is that women and men are equal but different. Women and men have different roles to play. Just as the head of HR and the IT Director have different roles to play in the company, but one is not inferior to the other, women and men have different responsibilities in life, in marriage, and in the practice of Jewish law, but neither is inferior to the other.

In defining and accepting different roles, we make it far less stressful to decide to play those roles, to take pride in them, and to perform them well. When the IT Director isn’t also trying to draw up the Employee Contract, he has more time to spend being the best IT Director he can be. And when the head of HR doesn’t also have to worry about setting up the new printers, she can be a much more effective HR manager. The same goes for women and men.

I'm not saying that men shouldn't assist in childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, and I'm not saying that women shouldn't work outside the home. Don't get me wrong. I'd be denying my own personal way of life if I said either of those things. But it's my responsibility to light the candles and make the challah, and it's my husband's responsibility to say the daily prayers. I don't want to have to do both! Who has the time?!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Instant Gratification

Today I experienced instant gratification on a whole new level. My brother got me an iPod Touch for my birthday (now that’s a good brother!). Another friend got me an gift certificate. The combination made me think: Kindle eBook! I downloaded the (free) Kindle App from the App Store, went to a blog I frequent, AskMoxie, clicked through to the book NurtureShock which she recommended, and with one click, bought the Kindle version, and with the click of a button on my iPod, I owned the book. (To my chagrin, in my haste, I used my 1-click shopping, which paid for the book with the credit card linked to my account instead of with the gift certificate, but that’s not the point here.)

In the space of LITERALLY three clicks, I had the book. It took maybe one minute. Five if you count how long it took to browse to and download the Kindle App. Maybe less. Oh, and I had to enter a password once.

Before Amazon, before Internet Shopping, we had two options: Drive to the store, browse the physical shelves, pick up the item, peek at the price tag, take it to the cashier, and pay for it using an approved method like, I don’t know, cash, and drive home. And, *gasp*, you might have to go to more than one store to get everything you needed. This was the “instant” method. Alternatively, you could order something from a catalog by mail and expect to wait six to eight weeks to get it, COD or check or money order accepted.

Then, 15 years ago, we got and the Internet Shopping Revolution. Now we just had to browse the virtual shelves for just about anything under the sun, take our credit card from our wallet, type a long string of numbers, enter our address, and, voila, less than a week later, you had your stuff, without even leaving your house.

It’s gotten worse. Now they save your information, so you don’t even have to get up to go find a credit card. You click a button, enter a password, and you’ve paid, like magic! You don’t even take part in the transaction anymore; you don't have to get out of bed. You pick something out, and you get it, just like that.

And now, with books anyway (I don’t suppose they’ve figured out how to email clothes or power tools), we can have it with no wait at all. No hoping the UPS guy will come today; no worrying that FedEx has misrouted your item. Click! There’s the book. Click! Paid for and ordered. Click! I’m reading it in the bathroom!

I was floored. And I’m no technophobe. I love computers; I’ve had one as long as I can remember. I was entering DOS commands before a lot of my friends had learned to type. I was slow on getting into the cell phone revolution, and I’ve only just obtained the iPod Touch, but that was a matter of money, not technophobia or reluctance.

But I was shocked by how easy it was. It didn’t even feel like spending money. I didn’t have to get up and go downstairs, find my purse, fish out my wallet, pick a credit card, come back upstairs, type in all the information, and then download the book. I just had to CLICK. Amazon already knows me! And so does Apple! How very convenient!

But what’s this have to do with the price of brisket in Crown Heights?

Well, for one, you still can’t download kosher brisket to your iPod, and I am now registering my formal complaint on that matter.

But, more to the point, what is this obsession with, this need for, instant gratification? Why do I need to have this book RIGHT NOW? Why should it even be possible? How impatient are we that someone actually thought up this whole system, so that I could have the book I want in three seconds or fewer?

In Judaism, we are taught to work for the sake of the work, not for the reward. We are taught that when we pray, we are to be in the moment, thinking of what we are doing right NOW, not what might come later. When we perform a mitzvah, it is for the sake of G-d and the performance of the deed, not for the sake of a reward we may or may not receive now or in the future. It's not about gratification at all, much less instant gratification. If anything, we might get a reward in the World To Come, which is about as far from instant gratification as I can think of.

Sometimes, maybe it’s worth getting in the car and driving to the store. Enjoy the time out of the house, see the sky, feel the ground beneath your feet, watch the clouds, smell the books, talk to people, oh, and if the book you want is on the shelf, interact with the cashier in order to buy it. And if the book isn’t there, maybe you didn’t need it all that badly, but at least you got some exercise walking the stacks.

If things are too easy, we forget the value in working for them. And the more we can instantly fulfill every whim, the more whims we will need to fulfill, and the faster we will need that fulfillment. This leads us to some amazing things, like the Kindle App for iPod. But it also leads us to recklessness and disregard in our quest to get what we want as fast as we can.

Take a moment just to be. Put down the iPhone when you’ve finished reading this post. That text message can wait, your client won’t notice if it takes three more minutes for you to answer her email, and your kids may as well start learning patience now. Do a mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah. Here are some ideas for a simple mitzvah you can perform: Say a blessing over kosher food, ritually wash your hands when you wake up in the morning, say the Shema before you go to sleep, light Shabbos candles, give tzedakah, study Torah. If you need instructions on performing any of these mitzvot, or you want more ideas, feel free to leave me a comment, contact your rabbi, or (and I laugh even typing it) Google it.

Hey, the internet isn’t ALL bad.