By Diane Medved (NOTE: Challah recipe included at end)
The summer is at its peak, and the barbeques are fired up on the patio. We in the Northwest take advantage of our fleeting weeks of predictably great weather, and though we carefully navigate the Delta variant, eating outdoors this year seems particularly celebratory.
The recipe repertoire for our picnics may be a bit slimmer this summer after our months of isolation spent purging clutter. First to go were likely the cookbooks we’ve collected but now seldom use. It’s too easy to type “recipes for banana bread” into our phones and have the instructions for using up those quickly-blackening fruits at our fingertips. (Speaking of which, did you know that you can freeze bananas, either peeled or unpeeled, for smoothies and future baking? So go ahead and buy the $1.69 dozen-bunch at Costco, unafraid you’ll have to compost the softening remainders.)
Cookbooks have become the kitchen-shelf companions you hate to love. You love them because they’re endearing reflections of their authors, with charming back-stories for recipes that look impossibly savory on the page but require that one exotic ingredient or dauntingly numerous steps. Or perhaps your cookbooks serve you, as they do me, as a mini-travelogue, a way to experience a cuisine without hours in a plane.
As a host who serves a fancy Shabbat meal to a dozen guests on a weekly basis, cookbooks provided my culinary education. When guests honor me with compliments and ask where I learned to cook, I immediately reply with the names of some of my favorites—Moosewood, Silver Palate, Joy of Cooking, and a Jewish volume that is the traditional gift to a “kallah,” or bride, The Spice and Spirit of Kosher-Jewish Cooking. My copy of this essential guide to the Jewish home—not just food—is the ninth printing (1983) of the 1977 version; it’s since been reissued (1990).
I make challah, the traditional braided egg bread of Sabbath meals, fresh every week, letting my industrial-size Cuisinart do the heavy kneading. After so many years, I put together the dough by instinct, and as most experienced cooks, can easily eyeball the tablespoon of salt and the two teaspoons of yeast to sprinkle on tepid water.
The word “challah” actually doesn’t mean bread at all, but refers to a mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah to take out a small amount of dough—originally tithed to the priests, but now becoming a reminder of the ultimate Source of our food. Just as the first fruits grown in Israel, the firstborn of livestock (and even a firstborn human son) have Jewish rituals, it’s a special commandment for bakers to elevate what might be seen as physical, material work with something spiritual. Separating that bit of dough (then charring it in the oven) is called “taking challah,” a word generalized to mean the traditional Sabbath loaf.
Cookbooks carry traditions, and some become so sentimental that we can’t bear to include them in our loads for Half Price Books. I found in my mom’s collection a quaint ‘50s loose-leaf volume titled “My Recipes,” containing sections indexed off, each with an envelope. It’s an organizer for the recipes cooks used to clip from newspapers, or hand-copy onto index cards. I treasure the “Mother’s Potato Salad” recipe in her perfectly-legible handwriting, and see her tastes reflected in the recipes she chose to save. We can learn a lot about others, and ourselves, from such selections.
Some cookbooks become precious because of their provenance: The one presented at a bridal shower, inscribed by a childhood friend. The hostess gift signed by a grateful guest. Or presents chosen especially for us. Our home is kosher pescatarian, meaning no meat, so I’ve been given a plethora of vegetarian, kosher and bread cookbooks, presented because their givers wanted to please me. How can I possibly give away something lovingly chosen to bring me joy?
Which brings us back to the Covid cleaning many of us undertook over the last year. My grown children don’t have the same qualms I do about discarding anything they see as extraneous or seldom-used. While I dutifully read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I find far too much that “sparks joy,” and face difficulty personifying my upcoming trash to thank it for its service. Rolling my socks and standing them soldier-like next to each other in a shallow drawer doesn’t carry enough advantages for me to abandon my serviceable method of pairing into a ball and throwing into my deep sock-drawer. And the Japanese approach to possessions—i.e. get rid of nearly everything—just doesn’t let me enjoy my too-vast costume-jewelry or paper-napkin collections. I’m organized; I know where everything is. It’s just that in 36 years of marriage, you inevitably collect a lot of (beloved) stuff.
My motto at this stage: “divest, divest, divest.” And the cookbooks are mighty ripe for the process. Still, cookbooks are alluring. Their photographs, an art in themselves. During the pandemic, when restaurants closed and everyone was forced into their kitchens for food, sales of cookbooks soared. Add to that the extra time available to families to explore culinary options, and demand for this light and useful genre leapt 17% in just a year, according to the New York Times. At the top of the best-seller lists were some already-popular authors, including Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Table, Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food, perfect for a pandemic, and for the newly-pressed chef, The Happy in a Hurry Cookbook, by Steve and Kathy Doocy.
Combining answers to pent-up wanderlust and the need for dinner while confined by Covid, a hit on the charts was Cookish: Throw it Together, which the New York Times says “uses techniques from around the globe, ingredients that don’t necessarily require a trip to the grocery and recipes that take less than an hour to make,” That tome sold the most since its publisher, Milk Street’s, 2016 inception.
But now that we’re moving toward eating in restaurants and throwing barbeques for the vaccinated extended family, will we be keeping our cookbook acquisitions, or Marie Kondo-ing them out of the house? My bet is on the latter. Buying cookbooks during enforced isolation was a one-click kick, breaking the monotony and adding a ping of anticipation for the Amazon drop on the doorstep. Now we’re moving to post-isolation mode, and likely won’t spend as much time in the kitchen.
So relish your freshly-grilled burgers, and soak up the beauty of these precious weeks of sunshine. It’s time to be grateful for our families and the many sights, sounds—and tastes—we’re so fortunate to enjoy.
Diane Medved’s Challah
2 1/2 teaspoons yeast
2 cups warm water
8 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 to 3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 beaten egg, room temperature, for glaze
Sprinkle yeast on warm water in measuring cup; set aside for about 10 minutes. In large food processor with dough blade, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add oil and eggs but don’t mix. Return to yeast/water and gently make sure all yeast is combined in water and starting to bubble. Flash blend while slowly adding yeast mixture, then process until dough moves in one clump around processor bowl. Remove the clump to a trash bag-sized plastic bag; knead a little and then seal the bag with a twist-tie, leaving room for dough to expand. Place in a warm place several hours until risen. Line 2 large baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick spray. Punch down and divide dough into four large pieces. Divide one of the large pieces into three strands and braid onto the baking sheet; repeat so there are two long loaves per baking sheet. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush beaten egg on loaves and bake for 16 minutes, til golden. Say a blessing, and enjoy.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Her new project is Wholesome: Raising Kids and Your Consciousness for the Better. She’s married to author and radio talk host Michael Medved with whom she can be seen walking (while collecting litter) in their Seattle suburb, likely with their children or at least some of their four toddler grandkids. Reach Diane at DianeMedved.com.