My mother, an excellent baker, has always told me that cooking is more of an art, but baking is a science. “Just follow the recipe exactly,” she says, “and you can’t mess up.”
Over the years I’ve proved you can, and in a dazzling array of ways. I was banned from the kitchen in my college dorm after a pan of cookies I was baking caught fire. Yes, you read that correctly. Caught. Fire. I was a Pinterest fail before Pinterest existed.
So, to misquote a painfully bad Gwen Stefani song: I ain’t no challah bake girl.
Until last Thursday, when I attended the Baltimore Shabbat Project’s Great Pink Challah Bake at the Owings Mills JCC. My reasoning was this: If I can’t learn how to make challah surrounded by 500 Jewish women, well, there is truly no hope for me in the kitchen.
The event had sold out. Women crowded around the 50-odd round tables that filled the JCC’s basketball gym. In the dim, purple lights, I saw every person I knew. A star of David was outlined on the ceiling in green fairy lights. As the music pulsed, I felt my first real glimmer of optimism.
My friend Rachel sat in front of the mixing bowl to my left. An 8-year-old girl named Kayla, attending the event with her bubbe and sister, sat to my right. Kayla told me not to worry. “I’ve been three times,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
The first part started out OK. Kayla showed me how to mix the yeast and the water with my fingers. Things got hairier during the dough kneading. Kayla assured me I would have a much easier time if I removed the rubber gloves that were helpfully provided.
“Your hands won’t get messed up,” she assured me. I looked at her hands. They were pristine. She patted her dough — a perfect ball.
Five minutes later, I was knuckle deep in goo I could not coax into a state of coagulation.
“You need more flour,” Kayla told me. In my bowl, probably. I already had enough in my hair, jeans, ears and eyelashes to make another loaf.
Kayla instructed her bubbe to pour me some more flour, as I couldn’t lift my hands out of the dough without bringing the bowl with me.
“You took your gloves off?” Bubbe observed. I side-eyed Kayla.
As our dough rested, women danced. I dodged a conga line of women as I ducked into the bathroom to wash up.
When I returned it was time to braid. Kayla stared at my dough, then looked up at me. “Don’t you want sprinkles?” she asked. She proffered a clear plastic bowl full of pink sprinkles.
“You can do that?”
“Of course. You really should,” she advised.
“Why?” I asked.
She regarded me incredulously. “Because everything is better with sprinkles.” She didn’t say, “duh,” but the “duh” was implied.
I poured them liberally onto the dough.
“You have to mix them in,” Kayla said.
“I just got clean! It took me ten minutes and there’s still dough in my rings!”
Kayla was nonplussed. “Go ahead,” she told me.
I did what she said, figuring, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
Meanwhile, my friend Rachel was struggling to braid her challah. “It looks like a roast chicken,” I helpfully observed. Rachel bunched it up and started over.
I was not doing much better, but by now, Bubbe was helping Kayla help me. In one fell swoop, she braided my challah for me. I held it up for Rachel to see.
“That’s amazing! How did you do that?” she demanded.
“Raw talent,” I boasted, then conceded that I hadn’t.
But I did the second one, under Kayla’s and Bubbe’s discerning gazes.
I held up my two tin foil pans. I’d done it. I’d filled two pans with dough I’d made (mostly) myself, and that was probably as far as I’d ever gotten in the direction of baking success.
It was, however, not that close.
“My, look at all those sprinkles you used,” Bubbe tutted. “Your challah is going to be pink.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.