Spiritual Kneading Through The Jewish Months: Building the Sacred through Challah
I previously reviewed Dahlia Abraham-Klein’s Silk Road Vegetarian: Vegan, Vegetarian and Gluten Free Recipes for the Mindful Cook [Vegetarian Cookbook, 101 Recipes] for Amazon, and loved the blend of Middle Eastern and Central Asian flavors; low-fat and full of flavor, there are also many gluten-free and dairy-free recipes (including baked goods). In her latest book Spiritual Kneading, Dahlia combines meditation and reflection with the traditionally feminine task of making, blessing, and baking the challah, a bread with deep spiritual and cultural meaning central to Jewish life. Spiritual Kneading uses the medium of meditation while kneading and working the dough to reflect on various passages and themes for each Jewish month. Beginning with an introduction to the feminine dimension of Rosh Chodesh and challah, there is a fascinating look at the origins of separating challah in midrashic verse. There are instructions how to form a Rosh Chodesh Challah Baking Group (“Spiritual Kneaders”), with a curriculum for each month of study and a helpful planner including an outline, equipment, and calendar. Further reading suggestions are also included to extend the use of the book beyond the first year. Numerous prayers in Hebrew (some transliterated) and English are included. Each month’s syllabus contains a specific challah recipe and shape that mirrors that month’s theme. Each recipe includes an introduction to the challah theme during the yeast activation, meditation during kneading, and a discussion during the rising, as well as reflective questions. Although I’ve been baking challah for years, I learned so many fascinating historical facts, customs and the use of challah across the centuries through Spiritual Kneading; baking challah is truly forging a connection across time. The significance of each ingredient took on new meaning as I continued to read and bake. I also love that Dahlia recommends using organic, fair-trade ingredients when baking; this is something I try to practice every day. Beginning with Tishrei, the first month of the year, there is a traditional spiral challah with apple and silan (date syrup, the original “honey” mentioned in the Torah/Bible). Rosh Hashanah traditionally has us dip apples in honey for a sweet year, and spiral challahs are traditional as well, representing positive changes in the new year (others believe it represents a crown. Other loaves include a (dairy) braided cheese loaf for Kislev (there is also a pareve option), Seven Species pomegranate-shaped challah for Shvat, boiled egg in challah (chubzeh di Purim) for Adar Alef, a gorgeous rose-shaped challah with raisins and rosewater for Adar Bet, and a crown-shaped challah with olive oil and za’atar for Elul. The basic dough recipe for each is the same, and is scaled to make 8-10 medium loaves (as I am baking for a small household, I scaled each recipe to 1/4, which yields two medium loaves). I’ve been baking challah for years, but was intrigued by the book’s premise of merging meditation (which I practice frequently) with bread baking; I had always found the rhythm of kneading to be soothing, and it lends itself well as a time for reflection. I made the rose-shaped challah with raisins and rosewater using the crown-shaped braiding instructions, and I can say without a doubt that this is truly the most beautiful loaf of challah I’ve ever made. I used premium yeast from my friends at Red Star Yeast, who were kind enough to send samples, as well as imported Lebanese rosewater from Maureen Abood’s online market. The basic dough recipe is a water challah (no eggs or butter) with a little olive oil added: Basic dough recipe: 4 tablespoons active dry yeast 4 ½ cups (1.1L) warm water ¾ cup (150g) organic sugar plus 2 tablespoons organic sugar 5 pounds (2.25 kg) organic white flour 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt 1 cup (230 ml) neutral-tasting oil (some recipes call for olive oil)
This dough is more common with Sephardic Jews rather than the perhaps more familiar “eggy” challah baked by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe; Sephardic Jews believe that adding eggs to the dough renders the challah more like cake, and thus ineligible for the Hamotzi blessing. The basic dough recipe very easy to work with and produces a light, fluffy, sweet challah (the base recipe calls for added sugar) that invites add-ins. As I primarily cook in metric, I appreciated that metric weights were included for portions of each recipe. The instructions were very clear and easy to follow (and the step-by-step photos were a lifesafer, especially for my first attempt at braiding a four-strand crown loaf!). The cooking times were also very accurate; the recipe mentioned 30-35 minutes, and mine took 30 exactly (my old oven tended to run hot, so breads baked faster / more unevenly).
I love that the author also includes a challah recipe using fresh yeast; one of my earliest memories in the kitchen is of my Polish grandmother baking bread with fresh yeast, and it’s a tradition I’ve tried to uphold (I generally purchase fresh yeast from bakeries as the Fleishman brand once found in the grocery store seems to be a relic of the past due to its rapid spoilage). Recipes for spelt, whole wheat, and a gluten-free oat challah (which requires shaping in a silicone mold as it is not braidable) are also included. Other shapes and braids (single strand, two-strand, four-strand, six-strand) are also included, with super-helpful step-by-step photos for the braiding. Not only are the bread recipes delicious, creative, and reliable, but I really connected with Dahlia’s choice of reflections for each bread. Many stories from the Torah are brought to life with details I’d never noticed before, and the choice of readings and reflective questions really bring a deeper spirituality to making challah. I look forward to baking my way through the rest of the book over the coming year!
Anyone interested in bread baking should add this title to your collection; the step-by-step photos and helpful text demystify yeast baking for all audiences.