The haphazard gourmet on a high challah day roll

“What’s that yellow goobotz on my shirt?” my husband said as we hung the laundry on the clothesline. “I have no idea,” I replied. “Maybe it’s a dead bug … Oh my God, there’s one on my blouse, too. Maybe it’s an infestation.”

Fortunately, we didn’t have to call an exterminator. Reaching into the laundry basket, I discovered the source of the epidemic: yeast. The canvas pastry cloth used for rolling out High Holy Day challah dough was spackled with yellow glop resembling snot. Before Kol Nidre, I must have tossed the cloth into the washing machine, praying the yeasty remnants would dissolve. Not only did my prayers go unanswered, but the yeast turned rubbery.

I’m a good cook — but the product is better than the process. That’s why an ex-boyfriend dubbed me the haphazard gourmet.

My season of chaos began with Rosh Hashanah, when I spent $40 on kosher beef. I rinsed it before cooking, but that wasn’t enough. The level of salt made the dish borderline unpalatable. But a haphazard gourmet is nothing if not a problem-solver, so I discarded the vegetables and some of the sauce that had cooked with the brisket. I prepared vegetables and added them to the meat, covering the dish with unsalted plum tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and a splash of merlot.

“This is wonderful,” my friends said, as I shared the dish at a fellow choir member’s house. “Can I have the recipe?”

Confident after my success, I tried my hand at Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies with Dried Cherries, a recipe we were about to run in J. The writer had recommended sprinkling each unbaked cookie with ½ tablespoon of coarse sea salt and sparkling sugar.

The verdict when I brought them into the office: Inedible, although some said they were “interesting.” Somebody said adding sea salt to everything was “the trend.” But she doesn’t have high blood pressure. However, before we printed the recipe we eliminated the salt garnish. I tossed the remaining cookies into the freezer, which only seemed to heighten the saltiness. My husband likes them. I do not.

If at first you don’t succeed, try your patience. On the morning before the Kol Nidre service, I woke up early to prepare challah, only to experience a yeast defection. Because I had inadvertently mixed the yeast powder with hot instead of warm water, the only thing that rose was my blood pressure. I tossed the entire mixture in the refrigerator with a little more yeast and a little more water, praying it would become a workable dough — albeit not in time for Kol Nidre.

Then I started afresh. Warm water, a teaspoon of sugar, two scant tablespoons of yeast. Work in the eggs, flour, oil, honey and currants, and let it rise. But as I kneaded the well-risen dough, somehow I had worked a rubber band into the mixture. Where did that come from? Fortunately, it was extricated before baking.

With the kitchen still in disarray, I turned my attention to break-the-fast and the cookies I’d promised to bring — this time without the sea salt. I shared the remains of the day at the office. “What a difference!” my co-workers said.

I love to cook — and I’ve rarely enjoyed a Bolognese sauce or a bowl of chicken soup that was as satisfying as my own. I’m also not a bad housekeeper, except while I’m cooking.

“How come your mother never makes a mess like you do?” my father said one year as I was peeling and slicing apples for a holiday dessert.

My mother shook her head as I sent my parents off for a walk. She had her own culinary secrets. One year, she served Stouffer’s spinach soufflé in a lovely casserole and a food writer for New York magazine asked for seconds.

Unlike my mother, I seem to do things the slow way — whether it’s hanging sheets on the clothesline or getting my hands into dough. After Yom Kippur, I had another opportunity when I opened the fridge and discovered the bowl of dough from my first challah attempt. It was alive!

I formed the dough into 36 small rolls, put them on baking sheets and set them in the oven. Since the evening was warm, we left the doors open. Neighbors dropped in unannounced, lured by the aroma of baking. We shared the bounty.

Once again, the haphazard gourmet was on a roll.


Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].