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Monday, October 21, 2013

Challah: Nourishing our bodies and our spirits

I recently finished reading The Slow Down Diet by Marc David and loved it so much that I want to start it over again. So much to think about how we feed ourselves and what eating healthy really means... David argues that besides the commonly recognized nutrients, in order for us to function optimally, we should accompany our meals with relaxation, quality, awareness, rhythm, pleasure, thought, story and the Sacred.
In Judaism, nothing encompasses all those better than challah. We now think of challah as a delicious, rich braided bread, but the term challah refers specifically to a portion taken from the prepared dough.
I personally love kneading the ingredients by hand. I find doing so extremely meditative, relaxing and it feels so good! I get to breathe, think, and hope. I know it can become a difficult task to knead 5 pounds of flour (the minimum amount required to make a blessing during the separation of the dough) into dough, so if you own a bread-maker or a standing mixer with a dough hook and would like to use them, by all means, whatever makes you happier is best! Just note, that you can mix the ingredients in separate batches, but once mixed, you should put all the batches together into one mass to be able to separate the dough to make "challah."
Once the ingredients are mixed together, a pliable dough forms after kneading (due to the development of gluten, a now dissed protein, but the one and only capable of giving bread dough elasticity). Then, the challah is left to rise until it doubles its volume (time varies among recipes, but it could be about 1 to 2 hours), a blessing is recited (if 5 or more lbs of flour were used) and a piece (actual size varies according to authorities from the size of an olive to the size of an egg) from the whole dough is taken. That piece is The Challah. The required pause is a time that connects our human effort with G-d and His miracles, His gifts to us and His limitless powers. The moment of the separation distinguishes our humanity from His holiness, but also becomes a bridge that connects them both. Here's a great opportunity to access G-d, ask for a spouse, healthy children, good livelihood and/or good health. It's a moment that makes us aware of what we are doing, it makes us think about our lives and it's a time that can bring us together as a community. The power of the challah grows exponentially when separated by many people for a common cause. Please join me to make challah this week and include my friend's mother's name Diana bat Sophie in your prayer for a complete recovery.
The separated portion should be burnt (as a symbol of the challah that was given to the Priests in the times of the Temple). 
Once the piece of dough has been taken, you can go ahead and focus on the esthetics of the loaves. A shiny golden challah is the perfect decoration for a beautiful Sabbath table, and can inspire everyone sitting around it. 
Once shaped, you can wrap loaves up in plastic and freeze them. The freezer stops the rising process, but doesn't kill the yeast, so once the dough thaws, the rising continues. If you prefer, you can let the loaves rise a second time (about 45 min) and bake them in a 350 F oven. If it's late at night once you're done with shaping, no need to stay up waiting, just place shaped loaves in the refrigerator and let them rise overnight. The fridge slows down the rising but doesn't stop it completely.
Before baking, make sure your oven is preheated, brush challah with egg wash (if you want to), sprinkle it with toppings (again, up to you) and bake it. Here's comes the pleasure Marc David recommends: the smell wafting through your kitchen, a loaf that looks like a palpable miracle, tastes like glory and marks the rhythm of the weekly cycle. The fresh challah also carries along a story: your story, your hands, your creativity, your life, your thoughts and your prayers.
As for quality, making your own bread ensures you use no horrible artificial ingredients. You make something amazing out of very simple components, and that's why all the ingredients should be carefully chosen.
Then, the challah loaf is blessed, the bread is broken with friends and family, and who doesn't get excited by the first bite? Suddenly, everything seems happier, tastier, better. And then, at the end of the meal hailed by the challah bread, another blessing, this time, a special song of gratitude. 
In a nutshell: challah is, an opportunity to feed our spirit, our bodies, most of our needs and connect with G-d through a tasty loaf of relaxation, quality, awareness, rhythm, pleasure, thought, story and the Sacred. 

Here's a challah recipe I like, but feel free to use your favorite one. The internet and many cookbooks have tons of them. Your choice.
And please, please comment, ask or add on to this post in The Irony of Baking's FB page at:

4 cups (960 ml) lukewarm water
8 teaspoons dry yeast (3 1/2 packets)
1 tablespoon honey
5lbs bread flour (all-purpose flour or white whole wheat flour can be used instead, try using organic)
1 1/2 tablespoons fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups honey (I like using local honey from the farmer's market)
5 large cage-free eggs (2 of them separated and egg whites reserved)
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons expeller pressed safflower oil (evoo, sunflower seed, rice bran, avocado or melted organic coconut oil can be substituted)

-1 tablespoon culinary grade lavender, crushed 
-Sesame, poppy, flax or chia seeds for topping
-1/2 cup raisins and/or dried cranberries, cacao nibs or chocolate chips

  • check expiration date on yeast
  • treat yeast like a baby: test the water temperature for activating the yeast with the inside of your wrist, and if you'd bathe a baby in it, then it will work for the yeast. If in doubt, err on the colder side, as it would slow down the process, but water that's too hot would kill it
  • yeast loves sweetness, so add 1 tablespoon of honey (or sugar) into the water for activating
  • use a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl or cup to activate yeast. Metal may inhibit the process (trust me, it's happened to me)
  • if the sweetened warm water and the yeast don't start bubbling after 5 minutes, toss the yeast and run to your nearest Food Emporium to get a new package
1. Dissolve yeast in the lukewarm water with 1 tablespoon honey. Set aside.
2. In a huge bowl (or 2 large ones), mix flour and salt with a spatula or wooden spoon. Make a well in the center.
3. Pour into the well the remaining honey, the 3 eggs and two yolks,  1 1/2 cups oil and the activated yeast mixture (that should be bubbly and dense). Mix with a spatula and then knead, preferably with your hands, until the dough is elastic, and if you press it with a finger, the indentation disappears soon after it's made (it should bounce back). If using any additional ingredients like lavender or raisins, add at this point.
4. Combine all the dough if it was mixed in separate batches.
5. Cover dough with remaining oil all around, including the bottom and place back in its bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a moist kitchen towel and let to rise in a warm place until it doubles its volume (about 1:45 hour to 2 hours). Go to your spinning class, catch up on your email or make dinner, but make sure you set a timer (I usually ask Siri to tell me when the time has passed).
6. Now the most important part: separate the challah with a blessing, and be really aware of what you are doing to make the best of this special moment. Remember to add Diana bat Sophie into them!
7. Shape the challah (see tips below). Cover loaves loosely with plastic and let them rise again for about half hour.
8. Preheat oven to 350 F.
9. Brush loaves with the reserved egg whites, and sprinkle with seeds, if using
10. Bake until golden brown and when bottoms of challahs sound hallow when tapped. Time will depend on the size of the loaves made.

Enjoy your hard work, your connection with G-d, the good fortune of your prayers and the most special of foods...
Substitute flour with 5 lbs of GLUTEN FREE OAT FLOUR mixed with 3 TABLESPOONS xanthan gum. Note that without gluten, dough will be hard to shape into braids. I have one of these challah molds to do the trick!

Omit eggs OR add instead 3 TABLESPOONS flax meal mixed with 9 tablespoons water

BLESSING FOR THE SEPARATION OF THE CHALLAH (you can say it in Hebrew, English or whatever language you want) From

Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah.

Separate a small piece of dough, approximately one ounce, and say: "This is challah."
Burn the challah by wrapping it in a piece of silver foil ands placing it in the broiler, or by any other method. (If burning it inside the oven, there should be no other food baking in the oven at the same time.)

Here are some suggestions, but visit The Challah Blog if you want more specifics:

-You can make traditional 3-stranded braids, or could make each loaf by making a large braid and placing a smaller one on top lengthwise.

 -No time or patience? you can make an impressive challah by shaping portions of dough (whatever size you want) into balls and throwing a bunch of them in a cake or loaf pan. There you have pull-apart challah.

-I like making 4-stranded challahs, you just remember to go: "over, under, over" from right to left, and then starting over with the strand to the left.

-My favorite these days is Smitten Kitchen's round challah method that looks gorgeous and is so easy. 
small center weave weave to the right!
weave to the left! tuck corners under and behold awesomeness


Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Food Pharmacy

This past week, two people dear to my heart suffered from bad burns in their arms while in their kitchens. One of them rubbed butter on the wound right after the burn, which was a TERRIBLE mistake, as fat retains heat and that's exactly the opposite you need when the skin needs to cool down. 

Due to those two burns and in preparation to the imminent arrival of the flu (and regular cold) season with all its greatness, I decided to use this post to write about the most potent food-derived remedies I know of and that I have successfully used with my family.

Of course, as much as I love telling people what to do, this is no substitution for medical advice!

Now, let's get back to the burns. As many of us know, instead of oil, something cooling like ice or cold water is the way to go. My grandmother used to rub egg whites on burnt skin, and I remember it healing quite well, however, some doctors do not recommend that, as there's a concern for infection.

A great (in my opinion, the best) option is to always keep available a jar of good raw honey.  I wrote about it extensively here. But I'll recap. To a certain degree, all raw good quality honey has antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory, properties and compounds that help reduce pain and stimulate tissue repair. However, the strength of all those compounds vary from honey to honey depending on how it was produced, its place of origin, and the kind (s) flowers it derived from. Darker colored honeys tend to have stronger medicinal properties, but it's not a rule. 

Manuka honey has been widely studied and has shown amazing results for healing skin wounds and burns.  Manuka is a specific kind of honey derived from the pollen of the Manuka bush flowers that are native to New Zealand. This particular honey contains a strong antibacterial compound (MG), and honey producers in that country developed a scale to rate the potency of each specific batch of manuka honey depending on its concentration of MG. That rating system is called UMF, and in order to be considered of therapeutic level, the manuka honey should have a minimum of 10 UMF (and that's marketed as Active Manuka Honey). That's why if you decide to invest (yes, for all the reasons stated above, producing, transporting, distributing and buying manuka isn't cheap) in a container of manuka, make sure you purchase one that is above 10.

With all this said, a local raw honey might (or might not) be as effective and full of amazing compounds as a jar of manuka, but there aren't any rating systems established in the U.S. A farmer's market is a great place to buy local honey, and the person selling it might know about the composition of his/her honey, and to some extent, all honeys contain beneficial compounds. Avoid giving honey to children under 1 year of age and don't go for the $2.00 squeeze bear of processed (pasteurized) honey. That's been depleted from all the goodness.
Since honey never spoils, it's a no-brainer to always keep a jar in the cupboard (or in the medicine cabinet).

I did criticize above the old belief that butter heals burns as a false remedy passed by our mothers or grandmothers. But credit is due to our mothers, grandmothers, and great, great, great, great....great grandmothers and their herbal, food, home and folk remedies. Many of them are now being backed by science as the best ways to make us feel better and help us recover without scary side effects.

Chicken soup, chamomile tea, brewer's yeast, rice and carrots, burnt orange juice...Which ones did you grow up with? I'd LOVE to hear from your personal home remedies, please share in The Irony of Baking's FB page here.

In my family, freshly squeezed lime juice with honey were essential when we had a cold, and I keep giving that to my children. The vitamin C from the citrus and the properties of the honey are proven to help the healing process. Remember to use RAW honey!  
At my friend Karla's home, they took it to the next level: the concoction also had fresh minced garlic, which although didn't make it quite as palatable, the allicin and other active compounds in garlic contributed even further with their strong anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties (plus garlic also helps prevent cancer, heart disease and inflammation).

I grew up in a household were home remedies, homeopathy, shamanism (although this one freaked me out), acupuncture (I never forgave my mom for that one!), herbology and traditional medicine were all welcome, and I'm thankful for that (with some exceptions). When we had bad coughs, while in bed ready to sleep, an adult would iron a couple of sheets of newspaper a la Downton Abbey, and still warm (but not burning), would put them directly on our chests and backs, then PJ's on top, blankets and we were supposed to sleep. That's where the problem was: the smell of warm newspaper made me gag and the stiff pulp pajama that creaked as I tried to move left me sleepless. How was I supposed to get better? That's why I don't iron my children when I put them to bed (nor subscribe to the NYT), and why when my grandmother called me to praise the wonders of Oil of Oregano to heal/prevent coughs and colds, I was a bit skeptic. 

But then, Gwyneth, my idol, also raved about the pizza joint-smelling extract; and I was all in (pathetic...I know, but when Gwyneth says jump, I jump!). Oil of oregano (make sure it's good quality) is a very potent antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant, anti-parasitic, antiseptic, anti-viral, and disinfectant. It's quite strong, so it must be diluted before consuming it or using it topically, and the dilution depends on the concentration of the specific one you find. Make sure to read the directions on each specific bottle, as the recommendations may range between 4 and 40 drops! For adults, I use the recommended dosage and I mix it with honey or in a smoothie, the minute we start feeling sick, and for children, I add half of the recommended amount to their honey and lime mixture. It's remarkably effective. 

Another successful tip from my grandmother's repertoire is Celery Tea. It works like magic for menstrual cramps. I tried to find something about it online, and although I found recommendations for celery seed tea, grandma taught me that if you steep a couple of celery ribs (and leaves) in hot water for about 10 minutes, and sip it (you could add honey) you can be ready to roll out of bed and go about your day as if no monthly visits had tortured you before the tea. I couln't find much science to back it up, but all my friends from high school adopted the remedy due to its success. It does work!

For stomach ache, I grew up with the typical (and very effective due to its calming and anti-inflammatory compounds) chamomile tea. When I got pregnant for the first time and suffered from morning sickness all day long, I learned about the effectiveness of ginger for nausea and indigestion. But that's not all about ginger. Read this and you'll always keep some of this fresh root handy.

And I couldn't go on without mentioning turmeric, which is an incredible anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rhizome. You can easily purchase it in dry (or fresh) form and add it to dishes, smoothies or tea when you suffer from any sort of inflammation to accelerate the healing process. The turmeric compounds (AKA curcuminoids) are absorbed by our bodies much better, when consumed combined with black pepper and/or with fat. Some good ideas are curry dishes (with coconut milk, coconut oil) or olive oil, nut butters, avocados, or even with chocolate!

Now...don't even get me started on fermented foods, especially right after a round of antibiotics. The more kinds of cultured foods, the better your flora will get restored. My mom Z"L used to give us brewer's yeast. It was a bit disgusting, but after reading about our microbiota, I realized how wise she was to force us to swallow it! For my whole spiel on that, read my post here.

In case you weren't in the mood to read all my marvelous prose at length, here's the bottom line on which food helps with each health issue (remember: don't substitute these for a visit to the doctor):   .

  • COLDS: Fresh citrus, raw honey, freshly minced garlic, oil of oregano.

  • BURNS:Manuka honey (or other raw dark hued honeys)

  • INFLAMMATION: Curry powder (turmeric

  • MENSTRUAL CRAMPS: Celery tea

  • STOMACH ACHE/INDIGESTION: Chamomile tea, and/or ginger tea 

  • NAUSEA: Ginger

FERMENTED FOODS: Consume regularly to help maintain health and especially after consuming antibiotics to restore your gut with good microorganisms and prevent invasion of bad ones.