When a good friend passes on a recipe for challah, don’t drop the gauntlet. Do what I do, take the challenge, and bake bread. But I have a problem, I don’t have yeast. In fact, I haven’t set eyes on a package or jar since my bread-maker fell into disuse in the early 2000s. No matter, just add yeast to my growing grocery list—a list that makes the most of my grocery runs while COVID-19 ravages the world and lockdown rules confine us indoors.
On Palm Sunday I head to the store with this list. My cart fills up quickly and now there’s only one item left—yeast. I turn into the baking section and scan the shelves for the old familiar bottle. One trip down the aisle comes up empty. I try again from the opposite end. Still nothing. In desperation I ask an employee while keeping our two-metre distance. He points to the baking section where I’ve just emerged. Okay, he probably knows something I don’t. I push my cart back and this time I eyeball the labels pasted on the shelves. Success…I spot the yeast shelf. Lots of empty spaces except for a few yellow and blue jars in Fleischmann’s brand colours.
By now I am anxious to leave the store. I don’t have a mask on—we’re told that a mask provides a false sense of security—but most shoppers around me do. The jar has pictures of baked goods at the back. To be sure I should have questioned why there’s a picture of a meatloaf with gravy on the front. But I’m in a rush.
The next day I can’t wait to make my challah. I check that my water is just the right temperature before I open my newly-purchased jar of yeast. As I toss a tablespoon of flaky white stuff into the water, an inner disquieting voice asks if the yeast looks different. I ignore the warning.
With much gusto, I mix and knead exactly as shown in the recipe. Then I let the dough sit for an hour and a half to rise. When I remove the wet cloth from the dough it looks almost the same as before. Perhaps it did rise a little? Back to kneading and braiding the lumps, which I’ve now divided into two. They will, I hope, become my first bread making masterpieces. When I’m done muscling them into two long braids, I loop one into a circular loaf. Then I let them sit in my baking pans for another hour to rise. At the end of the hour, my mind’s eye gives me the thumbs up. Before I pop them into the oven I beat an egg and brush it over the top.
Forty to fifty minutes later, the moment of truth arrives. The loaves have browned nicely and the whole house smells fragrant. I take the pans out of the oven and let them cool for a bit. After I transfer the loaves to a rack, I take a picture of my masterpieces and send them to my siblings and the friend who goaded me into bread making.
When the bread cools down enough, I take a knife to one. My heart aches at having to destroy my beauties, but I slice a small end piece and pop it into my mouth. It tastes slightly sweet, as it should, but the texture feels thick. I look below the crust. In lieu of fluffy little holes, I see a dense smooth surface. It’s no use…I can’t delude myself anymore. I have baked two masses of dough—four cups of flour in each, eggs, water and a large dose of love and hope.
A day passes and hubby wants me to throw away my abominations. I can’t bear to part with them. Somehow, I want to rescue my labour of love. I take one loaf, cut a few thin slices and butter them before putting them in the toaster oven for a few minutes. When done, I put a wedge in my mouth, ooh and aah, and tell hubby that it tastes fine. But he’s not buying what I’m selling. Another day passes, and I repeat my toaster oven trick again. This time it tastes like buttered cardboard.
I have to throw them in the garbage. Miserably, I cut one heavy loaf into chunks and toss them into the organic waste. The other one I wrap and store in my freezer in hopes of a miracle that doesn’t materialize. It joins the first loaf a week later. Sadly, I acknowledge my failure as a baker of bread.
But why did I fail? First, my bread was doomed the moment I grabbed cornstarch instead of yeast off the shelf. I cringe even thinking about why I didn’t stop for a moment to read the label. It was only during my post mortem that I took out the jar, read the label and discovered my mistake. Second, I dismissed all the warnings flashing in my head—intuition is overrated. Third, my chutzpah led me to believe that I couldn’t make a mistake and my first attempt at making challah would result in a masterpiece. The road to humility is a long one.