What does baking challah have in common with life? How does it relate to medical wisdom? How can the process of baking challah be transformative?
Dr. Beth Ricanati, a Los Angeles-based internist who specializes in women’s health and wellness, explores answers to those questions and more in her delightful food memoir, “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs.”
Over the years, Ricanati, a mother of three, has baked a homemade challah every Friday for her family. Sometimes she bakes alone; other times she bakes with a group of women.
Ricanati takes the reader on a journey that is as much spiritual as it is practical. Interspersed within the details of how and why she makes challah are stories from her personal life and her medical practice that relate to the deeper lessons and meaning behind the ritual.
She notes, for example, that some things are out of your control, like whether or not the yeast will in fact proof, despite your best intentions, which often mirrors life.
Ricanati is a self-proclaimed worrier and multitasker; however, baking challah each week taught her mindfulness — to be in the moment. This weekly ritual forced her to slow down, to tune everything else out, to concentrate on the kneading of the bread and the measuring of ingredients.
Although the baking technique seems to be complex — the several steps include proofing and kneading the dough — when it’s actually broken down, a challah is the amalgamation of the most basic of ingredients: water, yeast, flour, sugar, eggs, salt and oil. But the simplicity of these items, along with the time that she sets aside each week, without fail, to make challah is her prescription for achieving balance in life — something that many of us are missing.
As a doctor, she also talks about the health benefits of challah, despite the fact that it is made with certain ingredients that, eaten excessively, could be harmful to one’s health. But again this relates to her notion that balance is the key.
Ricanati is Jewish, but few Jewish rituals were passed down to her. Her parents chose Christmas over Chanukah, and one set of Jewish grandparents ended up joining the Quaker church. But the challah baking process over the past decade pulled Ricanati closer to her Jewish roots; she now engages in challah-related mitzvahs and recites blessings over the challah, often dedicated to someone in need.
Though not a traditional recipe book, the author does provide helpful, practical hints about the process, such as the specific brand of flour that has served her well over the years, the fact that she highly recommends canola over any other oil, and what type of bowls and measuring cups to use.
The stories she shares about making challah with friends, about her upbringing and about her experiences as a physician elevate the book from one that is simply about how to make challah to one that is introspective, engaging and inspiring.
By the book’s end, the challah baking process will be demystified, and if you’ve always been too intimidated to try and bake one from scratch, this book might be just the magic ingredient that will encourage you to think outside the breadbox. PJC
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.