When I call Dr. Beth Ricanati, she is on her way, fittingly enough, to teach a challah baking class to twelve other women. It’s 8:30 am on a Friday morning, and Ricanati is ready to go, doing what she’s been doing for the past ten years.
Ricanati practices internal medicine, but these days one of her main self care prescriptions is challah baking. Kneading for your needs is what her new book, “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” is all about.
The amount of challah making classes Ricanati has taught varies from month to month. Sometimes she makes it with one other woman, sometimes five. It’s however many women can crowd around a kitchen.
She believes firmly in challah’s transformative power to bring women together. She’s made challah with women going through cancer diagnoses, family troubles, money problems. “It gets really intimate really quickly,” she told me.
I spoke to her about the gendered nature of challah baking, mindfulness, and the healing qualities of a Friday ritual. The below conversation is edited and condensed for clarity.
Shira Feder: You prescribe challah baking to your clients, in addition to medication. Why is that?
Beth Ricanati: I think that we all need to have a meaningful ritual in our lives. I think that many of us are pretty stressed out. I know I was very stressed out and overwhelmed. I found that through making challah I was able to be present, to stop for a moment every Friday. I’ve been doing this now for ten years and when I talk to other people, patients, and people I make challah with, I really talk about the importance of finding something in your life that enables us to stop and calm down.
For me, that’s making challah.
What is the emotional component behind therapeutic challah baking?
I’m making the bread with intention and I think that that’s something this behavior has really brought home to me is that we need to bring more intention into our lives. I think about the ingredients that I use when I make the dough, I make it in the merit of somebody or something every week, I think about women all over the world making challah on Fridays…
There is a lot of intention and mindfulness and being present that I didn’t necessarily have before starting this practice.
There’s that communal aspect, that you’re not alone in making this, you’re with all these women. Which brings me to my next question, what do you think about the gendered nature of challah making, as it is usually a ‘women’s activity’?
I definitely know men who make challah, but I do think it’s really interesting that there are these few traditions pulled out just for women that have to do with the home. I think there’s something really special about a group of women around a kitchen counter, our hands messy in a bowl of dough. It brings us together in a way that we don’t necessarily find otherwise.
How did you discover this stress relief?
About ten years ago, I was completely overwhelmed. A friend of mine said to me, “You should make challah.” If you knew me then, that was the funniest suggestion. I didn’t bake or make challah, but I did that day. And although it took me a long time, it’s five ingredients, you’d think I could put them in a bowl, but it was complicated for me. I called her a lot that afternoon.
But at the risk of a little hyperbole, it was absolutely magical. I stopped for the first time in a such a long time and made this beautiful bread. My family was overwhelmed. And I did again the next week, and I kept doing it, and before I knew it it had become a part of my life.
I kept making challah and I miss it if I don’t.
What’s your number one challah baking tip?
I love the concept ‘perfect is the enemy of the good.’ I try not to obsess about it being perfect. This recipe is incredibly forgiving, which is nice, because I’m not a baker by nature. I really believe that one of the benefits of this recipe is it reminds me to just go with the flow a little bit. Some weeks I use a little more flour, some weeks I use a little less, and that’s okay. But I need to be reminded of it because I forget.
Can challah baking be mindful? In your book you gave challah baking attributes like patience and humility, and I was wondering about that.
Challah isn’t just a bread that nourishes us physically but also spiritually. As a part of that, I’ve learned and relearned some of these important behaviors. Patience. You have to wait for the yeast to rise. It’s good to be reminded of that. We all have really good intentions but we forget. We’re overwhelmed. We’re multitasking, doing so many things, and what is so cool about this recipe and doing it every week is that I have to be reminded that oh yeah, the yeast has to rise, and I have to think about the water temperature, and if it’s too hot or cold it won’t work and it won’t rise and I love that.
Take me through a time when challah baking helped heal you. What was happening and how did you let it fix you?
One of the things I learned when I started digging a little deeper into making challah is that we make challah in the merit of something. Sometimes I make it in the merit of my kids having a test that week, or if somebody’s sick, and I’d never made it in my own merit.
I was in a car accident a couple years ago on a Friday morning, before I made challah. I’d smashed the car, but I was fine. When I got home that day and made challah I made it in my merit, of being thankful that I was okay. And I did feel better and it was really neat.
Now I think about it a little more, when I choose who or why or what I make it in the merit of. I say it out loud, even if it’s just me myself and I in the kitchen, which is a little ridiculous, but I think there’s something really special about putting it out into the universe. I find that when we say things out loud they often come to be.
Shira Feder is a writer. She’s at email@example.com and @shirafeder