Sacred Recipes by
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There are many recipes I consider sacred, but my version of them pales in comparison with the original. My mother-in-law’s soups were legendary, but all I have is her beautiful soup tureen to remind me of their excellence. I was never able to come close when I tried. Same with my mother’s baked goods. She was famous for her mandle bread and rugelach. Sadly, my efforts fell far short of hers. But I do make a mean challah. Here is the front of the original recipe card:

The sacred recipes I shared have a few things in common. They are easy to create, and they bring people joy.

45 years ago, we joined a group of six neighbors to form a friendship group called a Chavurah. Our original intention was to celebrate Jewish holidays together and raise our children outside of the confines of formal religious education. Eventually we all joined a synagogue so our kids could attend religious school. We had hoped they would enjoy it but, as one of our sage members reminded us, hating Hebrew School is part of our tradition.

While we may have failed at our original plan to educate the kids ourselves, we did excel at eating. Our religious practices were unconventional but our recipes were sacred. Every holiday had its assortment of special foods. One of our members was a gourmet cook whose Chanukah party was something our children looked forward to, even as they grew older and more cynical about many of our celebrations. My special contribution to all of our holiday get togethers was challah.

In the early days when our Chavurah decided to home-Sunday School the kids, we hired a young woman named Cheryl, whose knowledge of Judaic history and practices far exceeded ours. She taught my friend Jan and me how to make challah. There has been a long-running dispute about this recipe because Jan made hers in a food processor and I made mine by hand or in a Kitchen-aid mixer. For years, we had dueling challahs at our celebrations, but my recipe eventually prevailed. Or perhaps Jan got tired to making it.

My kids and grandkids love the challah, which is an essential part of all of our holiday gatherings. Here’s the secret to making challah. It’s not that hard to do, but it takes a long time. That’s probably a deal breaker in normal times, but in the current climate of staying home, why not try. After mixing it, you have to let it rise for 60-90 minutes, depending on the kind of yeast you use. Punch it down and repeat. Braid it and repeat. Then bake it for about 45 minutes. That adds up to over four hours. Using a mixer with a dough hook makes the entire process pretty easy and clean. I also bake it at 325 degrees for the entire time, as I am too lazy to change the oven temperature as the original recipe requires. It’s very doable when you have to be home anyhow. Trust me, it’s delicious.

As a bonus for those who are stuck at home with young kids, I will share another sacred recipe. It’s my preschool’s famous playdough. The version below makes a large amount for a preschool class, but you can cut it down for smaller numbers of children. And, of course, everyone washes hands before making it and before each use.

The sacred recipes I shared have a few things in common. They are made with very basic ingredients: flour, salt, and oil. They are easy to create. And, most of all, they bring people joy.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. How I admire you Laurie! I’d never even considered baking bread, or let alone challah, and must confess I use matzo ball mix and latkes mix at holiday time. And for my (very seldom) forays into baking, I use prepared pie crusts and even use a mix for making banana bread.

    But now just may be the time to get back to baking, will print out Laurie’s Challah recipe and keep you posted!

  2. Marian says:

    Challah is the bread of life to me, Laurie, so this story made me smile. I’ve always been intimated to try anything made with yeast. Now that I can’t have “real” Challah, I’ve tried to find substitutes. The best gluten-free Challah in the Bay Area is made by a Vietnamese woman, if you can believe that! It’s related to brioche, so that could explain it. A dear friend, who recently passed away, had celiac disease and incessantly tried to duplicate Challah, with mixed success.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    What a wonderful, moving story, Laurie. Having first learned of Chavurahs from earlier Retro stories — to say I was raised as a secular Jew is an understatement — I can now particularly appreciate them in the context of these truly sacred recipes. To state the obvious, they have much deeper meaning than just tasty food. And, for that matter, non-food; I love the Playdough recipe and wish I had known about it when my daughters were seemingly wallowing in the stuff.

    Thank you for sharing these recipes — and so much more — with us.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, John. I also had a recipe for peanut butter playdough. The idea was to squish it around for a while and then eat it. Gross. I made my first challah in our new condo yesterday and left one on my daughter’s porch. If can’t see her family, at least they will think of me when they eat it.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, you are right, our tradition does have special food associated with each holiday. How nice that you have those special memories (and good recipes) to go along with them. And that you are the challah Balabusta. There is nothing so sweet as good challah each Friday. My sister-in-law makes great challah every Friday night (my brother is a rabbi and teaches at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati). I am in awe of anyone with that skill.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Betsy, I have to save mine for special occasions, as I love home baked bread far too much. When I was a kid, one of my grandmothers served me challah in sour cream mixed with a bit of sugar. It’s a wonder I have lived this long!

  5. Laurie, I have never made bread (other than banana bread, which doesn’t really count as bread) but I do have a Kitchen Aid with a dough hook. Your challah looks so good and your instructions make it sound so easy I might just have to give it a go.

    I love that you call these sacred recipes. I have a large magnet on my refrigerator that says “Love People — Cook Them Tasty Food.” Same idea.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I wish I had that magnet, Barb! Although now that I’ve moved I had to let go of my collection of refrigerator magnets because they don’t stick to stainless steel. I have replicated the controlled clutter of my home office here at the condo, which puts me in my happy place.

  6. Suzy says:

    I love this story about your Chavurah, and especially the line “While we may have failed at our original plan to educate the kids ourselves, we did excel at eating.” I was in two different Chavurahs (Chavurot?) over the past 30 years, and the major activity in both of them was definitely eating. After all, the most important aspect of every Jewish holiday is the food. The story of any holiday can be boiled down to “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!”

    I hope to make your challah recipe, although I don’t have a mixer with a dough hook (I’ve never even heard of a dough hook before, it sounds medieval). Do you think a Cuisinart would work? Or using a conventional bread machine to mix the dough? Your friend Jan used a food processor and her challah wasn’t as good as yours, so I’ll just have to see.

  7. Marian says:

    Laurie, you are right that the gluten-free challah isn’t even close to the real thing, calories be damned. However, the Vietnamese woman who baked those wonderful brioches came close. They had the eggy, slightly sweet flavor of challah and made killer French toast.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Oh, I forgot I could make French toast with my left over challah. Dinner for tomorrow? We are doing some strange eating these days due to limited shopping and mostly using Instacart, with mixed results.

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