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How Baking Challah Bread Helps My Health

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In a previous article, I talked about how simple box breathing is, and how it helps me achieve a meditative state. No one says that you have to sit on a pillow and make “om” sounds in order to meditate. Meditation can be done most anywhere and with whatever focus works for you. In that same article, I discussed pool meditation. Now here is a version that is tasty and satisfying. How I “challah” my way to better health.

First, let me share my story of challah. Challah is an Ashkenazi Jewish traditional bread. My earliest memories center around my auntie Esther. She was an incredible woman. She could make a dress that someone would pay thousands for, but mostly, she made clothes for me. She could create anything from raw ingredients. Give her thread and material, and a blouse would occur. Give her veggies, and she would make a matzo ball soup from scratch to die for. Having a nice piece of fresh challah with it? Perfection. At my age, I so miss those days and wish I had taken more lessons from her. Besides her talents as a seamstress, and incredible kitchen talents, there was always challah. There was a local bakery called Zeppy’s that I loved, and I was spoiled on their breads and bagels. Challah always reminds me of my auntie, and how much I miss her.

In my own way, I get to keep more than just her picture on the wall. By making challah, I remind myself of her, and in doing so, I get a bit of movement. Up on my feet in the kitchen, giving my very sick body what it needs, along with the satisfaction I achieve in creating and sharing my own bread, made from scratch.  It’s not something I can do every day, but something I try to do at least a couple times a month. Its easy ingredients make it so that challah can be made whenever the feeling strikes.

Even if it’s 9 o’clock at night and I’m stuck in a pain storm, I can work it out in the dough. It’s also become a way to avoid “going dark.” That is what I call the feeling of depression that washes over when illness is in the forefront, and reality can be hard to swallow. In those moments, I want to climb under the blanket and never come out, times when meditation and positivity are needed the most. Like many of you, I do not have a family cheer squad. There is my small circle that I call family. They seem to enjoy my newer method of chasing away the dark thoughts and remind me often of their love for me, and my challah breads.

So why bread? It’s simple, but needs love and work to come out right. Before I even begin to gather all the tools I use to make my challah bread, I choose an audible, be it a book I am enjoying, a podcast or music. Having visual impairments means that reading, my favorite pastime as a child, is more difficult. I have come to love the readings by authors of their work. Hearing their emotions and inflections adds warmth to the atmosphere. I will say that I intentionally avoid depressing or sad things. I, with absolute intention, choose joy. Sometimes the sound of music makes the best beat to follow while kneading the dough. While working the dough, it’s not a bad thing to have a dance.

I have added a nice floor mat, like the ones you may see in an office under a worker’s feet, to keep fatigue at bay. It helps me stand, along with a brace, so that I can work the dough and just breathe. In those moments of gathering the ingredients, the bowls and tools I need, I start to set my environment, to make the space inviting to myself and ready to create some yummy goodness.

There are all kinds of ways to make challah bread. Traditionally, it is simply eggs, yeast, flour, water, salt and honey. You can do versions like cinnamon sugar, apple, or maybe even make a loaf, and use it for amazing french toast. As you can see, the ingredients are not many, but the bread takes some work to become good at. I am always looking to make it better than the last time. It’s all in working the dough with warm intentions. I think at times about the people whose bellies will be filled with the challah that I create.

I take my time when I make challah, and I actually think about breathing. That box breathing I mentioned earlier is great, however, all you need to do is breathe with intent. Slow deep breaths and with each one, letting go of ruminations. Mixing each ingredient one at a time, with purpose. In that moment, you can find some peace. When your thoughts are concentrating on working the dough and breathing, there is no room for anything else. That darkness can stay at bay. Pieces of it fall away without me realizing it.

When the dough is together and ready for kneading, that’s when the real feel comes in for me. I will put my legs shoulder-length apart, bend a bit at the knees, paying attention not to lock them. I have that nice pad under my feet, and the rhythm will find its way. All I have to do is be present in the moment. Each activity thought, and breath, is an intentional moment. We spend so much of our lives half in the conversation and half in our heads, with all the things we need to do, have no choice to do, just spinning around in our heads. Not often are we able to bury ourselves into something without risk. The dough changes, and I have come to know when it feels best to let it rest and poof.

Bread is a riskless activity. Worst case, it tastes not so great and you have to trash it. The ingredients are not that expensive, and your world will not suffer from bad bread. Your brain, however, may become lighter for having taken that mental break to simply breathe in and out. Deep and consistent, lost in the moments of hands in dough. The kneading has to be done for at least ten minutes. I have grown used to what a good bread dough feels like. How it is not dry, but soft. Working the dough until I can feel that it’s ready.

Time for a break. After that work, the beautiful body doesn’t really want to stand around. It’s rather easy to need a rest after this portion and it is perfect because now the dough has to poof. My dough takes about an hour to get to a nice rise, and I enjoy punching it down when it’s ready. The time in between allows me to clean up a bit as I go, so I don’t feel overwhelmed at the end.

I love making a nice traditional challah, and as soon as it is cool enough, tearing off a big piece. There is nothing more tasty than fresh baked bread, nothing so rewarding as to share with. I love sharing with others something they can’t just pick up at the corner deli anymore. Funny thing is, it’s not unhealthy bread. I would argue that it’s healthier than most. Whether it is used to make a sandwich, a side with some nice soup or a quick bite to eat, fresh challah will not leave your tummy feeling heavy.

In the time you have read the last few paragraphs, you have had a moment of peace. Albeit a small one, it’s a start. Let your mind bury itself in warm soft meditative challah. You’ll never regret warm fresh bread.

Getty image by Cavan Images

Originally published: March 16, 2022
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