For my upcoming birthday, instead of waiting for my friends or my husband to make me a “surprise” party, I decided to throw one myself. I settled on a cozy and intimate evening, celebrating my birthday with professional cake decorating and fruity cocktails with my nearest and dearest. But as with every gathering I plan, things started to get out of control. At first, I just planned on inviting my sisters, my sister-in-law and a couple of friends. But how could I leave out friends I haven’t seen for a while, neighbors whom I chat with daily, and co-workers whom I spend more time with then my own husband and children? The guest list was trembling at over forty invites and my expense budget was beyond what I normally spend on a three-day yom tov. It was time for some quality-control.
First, I narrowed in on what I really wanted for my birthday, which was to celebrate the day in a meaningful fashion. I had recently finished reading the beautiful biography of Rebbetzin Kanievsky. Hafrashat challah was very important to Rebbetzin Kanievsky and she was particular to do the mitzvah not just every week, but even every day, when she would go down to a nearby bakery and take challah from there. On Thursday, she would host groups of women who would answer amein to her brocha. I was inspired to follow her example, but the few times I made challah, no one would eat it.
Thankfully, a good friend of mine, Soshie, is a culinary graduate of the Arts Institute of New York, and breads have always been her thing. Although she now works as a physician’s assistant, she was willing to give a demonstration on the proper way to make challah and how to flavor the dough with herbs, cinnamon and sugar, onions, roasted tomatoes or garlic, etc. Afterwards, we could all make the brocha together.
The decision to do specialty challot cut out the need to hire a professional cake decorator, and eliminated the need to provide a spread of food and buy chic paper goods. After all, if everyone’s hands are busy kneading dough, they can’t quite sit down and sample different salads and hoers devours. Instead, I served iced decaf coffee and tea, and just a few platters of candies and cookies.
There was this great idea in Real Simple magazine by Michelle Slatalla to reduce an overloaded guest list. You take the list of people and divide them into categories, i.e. neighbors, co-workers, friends, children’s friends, etc. If you want to invite one person from a category, everyone gets invited. To minimize hurt feelings, consider where the categories overlap, like in a Venn diagram. The concept was brilliant, but unfortunately for me, all my categories overlapped. I couldn’t figure out how to cut any group out, so instead I set the party at a time that would be most convenient for me and Soshie, but not necessarily for others. This way, I figured girls would come only if they really wanted too.
One week before the party, I made the cookies and froze them. Three days before, I went shopping. Two days before, I made sure there were sufficient clean chairs and tables in the house and confirmed the RSVPs. The day before, I cleaned the house. That afternoon, knowing my kids will never stay upstairs in their beds while there’s a party going on, I had them bathed and dressed them in their cutest pajamas and then I let them help me prepare the drinks and platters and set the table.
The party was called for seven and my guests began to arrive at 7:30. Being that it was quite a diverse group of women the challah demonstration was a great icebreaker. The demonstration was superbly done and sorely needed. Apparently, I’m not the only woman who wasn’t endowed with the gift of baking underneath the chuppah. Who knew that the need to proof yeast is only for dry yeast that may have expired and by using fresh yeast, you can save yourself ten minutes or so. It was fascinating to watch Soshie swirl the mixture with one hand as she added the wet ingredients followed by the dry. She poured, without measuring, about two thirds of the recommended amount of flour, and then let the dough rest and form together. I used those ten minutes to speak about the spiritual and unifying factors of making dough and then gave the stage back to Soshie. She continued to add flour until the dough was solid, but still slightly wet and sticky. “Know your dough,” Soshie admonished us, and indeed we were becoming quite familiar with it.
My personal favorite tip from Soshie was to prepare the dough Thursday, stick it in the fridge in an oiled garbage bag, and then abut two hours before you plan on baking the challah on Friday, take the dough out to continue rising on the counter in its bag. Once the dough has reached room temperature, take it out of the bag without punching it down, braid the dough, dust it with cornmeal on the bottom and place it on a cookie sheet to allow the dough to rise to its capacity. Soshie recommended egging the loaves right after you braid it so that the egg layer won’t deflate the dough. Once the dough resumes its height the second time, bake it at 425°degrees for ten minutes and 325° degrees for fifteen minutes. Check if the challah is done by knocking on the bottom of the loaf to hear if there is a hollow sound. The average challah recipe makes about six loaves. If you want to freeze the dough to use later on, Soshie recommends par-baking it, which is baking the challah until there is a golden sheen on the top and then sealing the loaves in ziplock bags.
Party guests went away with some handy techniques to improve their challah baking experiences, along with a sizable piece of dough to enhance the beauty of their Shabbos table. I said goodbye to my guests and cleaned up from the evening with the sense of satisfaction of an evening well-spent and a fridge filled with the best challah dough I ever made.
About the Author: Pnina Baim’s newest novel, “A Life Worth Living”, about finding happiness and meaning in the land of Israel, is now available at all online retailers. Contact Pnina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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