The Joy of Baking Challah with Vicki Eastus

Vicki Eastus

Vicki Eastus is a lawyer, teacher, improviser and storyteller. A native Texan, Vicki declared herself a feminist at age 10 and started her long career as an advocate for women. She has been a campus advocate on sexual harassment issues, a lawyer for the largest group of women to ever successfully sue the government for sex discrimination, and a Title IX Coordinator. Vicki earned her B.A. in Russian literature, focusing on Russian formalist criticism and the distinction between plot and story. She carried those concepts into her legal career, bending traditional legal writing rules to make her clients’ stories more compelling. Now a professor at New York Law School, she integrates storytelling and improvisational techniques into her classes on legal analysis and advocacy. She has given presentations at national and international legal conferences on using storytelling and improvisation to teach legal analysis and to help law students find their legal voices.

The Joy of Baking Challah with Vicki Eastus

What could be better than freshly baked challah? Talking about baking challah with one of my nearest and dearest friends! In this episode, Vicki tells us how she got started baking challah with her daughter during the COVID-19 lockdown. She shares her baking process, the traditions of challah, and the joy and memories that food provides for all of us. We also talk about the storytelling community that brought us together and the stories that connect us to our past, to history, and to one another. 

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • How Vicki bucked her fear and started baking her own challah with her daughter
  • Some of the traditions and history around challah baking
  • The memories and joy we can all find in homemade and home baked food
  • The inspiring work of Jose Andres and his organization, World Central Kitchen
  • The Instagram account @challahbakeoff

Links to resources:

TranscriptDuration: 24:10

Christa Avampato  00:00

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the JoyProject. I’m your host, Christa Avampato. And I’m so glad that you’re spending time with us today. And we have such a delicious treat! One of my very nearest and dearest friends who, like Ashley Semrick who has also been on this podcast, saved my life, literally. And I’m very, very grateful for her and I am here because of her. So I am so happy to introduce you to my dear, dear friend, Vicki Eastus. Vicki, welcome to JoyProject.

Vicki Eastus  00:26

Oh, it is a joy to be here.

Christa Avampato  00:29

Yay. Thank you, Vicki. Where are you joining us from today?

Vicki Eastus  00:33

I’m joining you from Brooklyn.

Christa Avampato  00:36

Wonderful. And what do you do in Brooklyn?

Vicki Eastus  00:37

I teach law students how to write good legal analysis. And when I’m not doing that, I try to be a storyteller. I also do a lot of local politics.

Christa Avampato  00:50

I love it. And we know each other from the storytelling community. It’s how we met, being storytellers, and being producers of storytelling shows. And it is one of the great blessings, I think of that community, that people like you are in my life. And so I’m just so grateful and so happy to have you as my friend.

Vicki Eastus  01:06

It is an amazing community of people who are willing to share themselves with others. It sets a wonderful bar of honesty and authenticity.

Christa Avampato  01:17

I agree. I agree. So Vicki, I want to talk to you today about what brings you joy. And I’m so excited for this topic. So please share with us.

Vicki Eastus  01:27

So when you asked about what brings joy, the first thing that came to mind was making challah. As I thought about it more, I realized that I wasn’t interpreting joy is one of those once in a lifetime moments, like the joy of when a baby is born or something like that. Making challah isn’t always a weekly thing for me. But sometimes I go on jags where it’s a weekly thing. I will confess there’s a ball of challah trying to rise right now in my kitchen. Because I thought, well, if I’m going to talk about challah I should actually be making challah.

It’s a multi-step process. And every step has a different emotional resonance for me. It’s a bit of a miracle. You start with yeast, right? And put a little bit of sugar. Some people use honey, a little sugar, a little water, and it blooms and it grows, and it’s alive. I was terrified of making challah because it was a yeast bread and yeast bread must be hard.

Two things inspired me to actually do it. One of them is a friend who was also terrified by making challah and she’s a very brave woman. She has six children. She started posting on Facebook every Friday videos of her five-year-old helping her make challah. And I was like, Well, if a five year old can make challah, I can make challah.

My mother was not a baker. My grandmother was not a baker. I married into a Jewish family. I’m not Jewish, but I do have a daughter. And it was my daughter who taught me how to make challah, who is Jewish and as a baker. So that’s the first level of joy for me. It is something that my daughter taught me how to do.

She was living with us for a while during the pandemic. And my husband became a sourdough bread baker. And I was like, well, let’s try challah. And so she taught me how to do it. And then we were trying to we combine three different recipes. Now we have our own recipe. So that’s another level of joy. My adult daughter is a good enough friend to teach me how to do this.

And then there’s a tradition when you knead challah you say prayers. I am not someone who says prayers. But there’s 5 to 10 minutes where you’re stretching the gluten and you’re needing the challah and especially if I’m making it for someone or if there’s something going on in my life for those 5 to 10 minutes, I find myself really focusing on that person who needs attention.

And while smelling the wonderful smell of a yeasty dough and feeling the dough and all of your senses, you have to be present. I suppose I could listen to a podcast or something but I don’t. I just focus on being present with the dough and then you know it grows. Give it its own time. So there’s also learning that, oh, sometimes you just have to be patient with it.

Then you get to braid. And the first time you do that it’s super intimidating because the dough is kind of weird. It springs back and you try to stretch it out. And it’s like, okay, I’ll make this and it’ll be about 15 inches long. And suddenly, it’s about eight inches long. And you’re trying to figure out well, how do you do this, and then you realize, you can shape it into all kinds of creative shapes. There’s a tradition during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to make a circle loaf.

And then you bake it in your house smells phenomenal. And then you eat it, and it’s gone so quickly. But every stage has its different component to it. And they’re all very simple, but it’s a really wonderful gift I’ve given myself—a tradition of spending time most weeks doing this.

Christa Avampato  06:11

I love that. And I’ve been a recipient of your challah which was delicious and I can absolutely attest to the fact that I think it lasted maybe two days in my house. I live alone, and my dog does not eat bread. So it’s definitely all me eating it. And it was just so delicious. And it was filled with love and was filled with attention. I love challah more than anything and I have not attempted to bake it either. Now I’m really inspired to give it a shot. What was your first challah you made with your daughter? Do you remember?

Vicki Eastus  07:13

It was good. I think back to it now and I realized that we probably didn’t knead it quite long enough. But it was good. We have pictures of us very carefully lifting it from the baking mat onto the cookie sheet to bake it and it’s like both of us really looking terrified that it’s gonna break and now I just kind of one hand it. I have an image that gives me the courage to bake challah—it is a traditional Orthodox Jewish woman with a house full of kids. Go back in time so her house is not temperature sensitive, right? Not central air or heat. She’s juggling 1001 things, cooking on who knows what kind of oven. Yes, she’s turning out challah. And once you realize that then you know this has to be sort of forgiving. It takes a lot of the fear out of it.

Christa Avampato  08:13

Yes. I love that. I love that. Vicki, we are also both avid fans of history. Do you know anything about the history of challah? How it started? What it represents in Jewish culture?

Vicki Eastus  08:31

Well, the different shapes of loaves, there are a few traditions. You make a circle at the new year because of the no beginning, no end. So it’s a traditional shape. There is a tradition of breaking off a piece of challah and burning it. I’ve spent the last 30 years very adjacent to the Jewish community, very much part of the Jewish community, without being Jewish myself.

I took a 20-week introduction to Judaism course. It was great. There are about 10 of us maybe, online every week. And all of us started baking challah. It was fabulous. Like we would show pictures and there were people who did gluten free challah. There was a rainbow challah that appeared. There was all this wonderful creativity with color as well as different shapes. People now make animals out of challah. Like these phenomenal octopus shaped challah.

Christa Avampato  09:42

With the like tentacles sort of flowing out of the main loaf of challah. Can you flavor challah?

Vicki Eastus  09:52

You can! You can take a challah and sort of split it and put chocolate in it and braid it over and you have a form of babka.

Christa Avampato  10:01

Oh, that’s delicious.

Vicki Eastus  10:05

Yeah, there’s a lot. You can definitely mix in fruits or nuts, raisins, things like that. Sprinkle things on top—poppy seeds or sesame seeds or the everything spice, zatar. I tend to be pretty traditional about it. But yeah, you can flavor them and it’s basically a brioche dough. So it’s very forgiving and it’s very flexible, but it’s also rooted in this tradition. And that’s not 100% my tradition but there are times when I’m making challah that I really am thinking of people from history who made it. I don’t know if you read the books, All-of-a-Kind Family. Sydney Taylor’s series. And I’m thinking about those women and their families and just feeling connected to them. A link.

Christa Avampato  10:54

Yes. And I think food in general does that, right? Like when we make someone’s recipe when we make a family recipe. My family’s Italian and I would not say that we come from a line of people who are phenomenal bakers or phenomenal cooks. We’re functional cooks and functional bakers. But my grandmother made this like very, very simple apple cake. And it’s quite possible that it came from a box, I’m not really sure. It was just good old yellow cake with cinnamon apples on the top. And she made it in a round bundt pan. We would go there once a month to West Hartford, Connecticut to see her and it would always be up in the Tupperware on top of the fridge.

I will make a version of that cake and my grandmother has been gone now, goodness, 22 years. And I have her beautiful picture from when she was a teenager in my house. And when I make that cake, I swear to you she is sitting next to me. She’s right there in that cake. And I think food can do that. And whether it’s someone that we love and is dear and has passed on. Or like you said, like these families, you know, the lower east side which was a traditionally Jewish neighborhood for a long, long time in New York, and still is in many ways, as is the Upper West Side, as are parts of Brooklyn. And I think when we make those types of recipes, you think about oh, yes, all of these people who are making challah all these years in this city.

Vicki Eastus  12:31

Exactly. I usually do make it on Friday, just because it works with my schedule, but there’s also a tradition of having it ready for Shabbat dinner. And it’s yes, one of the things that we started doing during pandemic. We weren’t going places so we said let’s make Friday night dinner special. I mean a little bit from connecting more with religion, but also just establishing traditions. And yeah, food and family traditions like that. Every Thanksgiving, my cousins and I are trying via email and you think we’d have it by now. What exactly did my grandmother do with her stuffing? Or dressing because you didn’t put it inside. But what was what was in grandma’s dressing? We’re trying to recapture that flavor. And that smell. Yes, it transports you back to people you love.

Christa Avampato  13:27

Yes, exactly. And I definitely have certain types of foods that I associate with places that I’ve traveled. Wonderful memories of traveling or experiencing a culture for the first time. I grew up on an apple farm in the Hudson Valley. And almost, you know, 99% of us were Italian and Catholic. So it was a very homogenous community, still is. And when I went to school in Philadelphia and West Philly, I had never had Ethiopian food before I had never had Indian food before. Like we had one Chinese restaurant, you know, was the one Chinese family in our town that everybody went to a couple times a month or something like that and got takeout. And that was the extent of my adventurous food. We didn’t have access to it. And I was grew up very, very poor. We didn’t travel anywhere. And so we just didn’t have that exposure, you know, until I was 18.

And I went to West Philadelphia, which for me was an enormous culture shock for so many reasons. And I remember having injera, the bread that you have Ethiopian food with and I was with like 20 people I didn’t know. It was my first week on campus. Now every time that I eat Ethiopian food, which I love now and we have many fantastic Ethiopian restaurants here in New York, it takes me back to being 18. This was like a way into a whole different world, you know, that I didn’t even know was out there. And I think food can do that, too.

Vicki Eastus  14:55

I have a similar story with clam chowder. And it was probably the first week of school that week before classes have started in college. You’ve gone to too many mixers. And a woman who lived down the hall from me said, she was from the Boston area. And she said let’s go get some clam chowder. Every time I have clam chowder, I think of Kim and forming a friendship introducing me to clam chowder and being astonished that I had never had it. We didn’t go to a freshman mixer that night. And had clam chowder.

Christa Avampato  15:48

I love that. And I think it takes us back to past versions of ourselves, right? Like you think about who you were at that time and what you knew and what you didn’t know and what you thought you knew. And where we were, at that point in our lives, right? I have a similar thing with Entenmann’s. That was a real treat for my family. We had a second-day store, one town over from the town where I grew up. And if my sister and I were really, really good, my mother would take us to the second-day store, and we could pick something out. And I remember what that store smells like, I remember what it looks like, I could absolutely navigate my way there. If I close my eyes, I even remember the texture of what that food was. There weren’t lots of joyful things in my childhood. But that was one of them. Getting to have that treat on a weekend if I was really good. A primal memory for me. Bless Dear Mr. Entenmann. A good Brooklyn, New York company.

Vicki Eastus  17:06

I think if you talk to a lot of people about what their very first memory, many of us have food in them. My first memory is being with my mom going to pick up my older sister from preschool. So I was not yet in preschool. Going to a bakery that I can still see. And being given a cookie. Like I don’t really remember what flavor the cookie was. But I can say I remember waiting for my big sister and eating a cookie that the nice lady at the bakery had handed me for free. That was my first real memory, which tells you a lot. But a lot of people—their first memories have something to do with food.

Christa Avampato  17:59

It’s so multisensory, right? It’s smell, it’s taste, it’s the look of it, it’s the feel. I mean, it really is like a whole experience you’re having. And I think it is so true that when you have a memory that is rooted, when you’re so young. Those memories really stay with you, right? And I look at people who are bakers, and people who are chefs, I think they’re magicians. They’re my superheroes. I the Great British Bake Off. And likewise, one of my nearest and dearest joys, is there is something just so beautiful, like you said, of, oh, well, here’s this jar of yeast in my freezer, and I put it in a little warm water and put it in a little sugar, and it comes back to life. And I feel like it’s such a great metaphor, kind of for where we are right at this point in our world, trying to come back to life when we’ve been dormant and nature does that. You know, we have so many examples in nature. Moss is an example. Moss can look like it’s dead and desiccated. And you put a little water on it. And it comes back. What’s our water? What’s our story about coming back to life?

Vicki Eastus  19:24

One of my heroes right now is Jose Andres and World Central Kitchen. Here’s this master chef who can make the most exquisite, multilayered meals and what he’s doing with his life right now is going to war torn, disaster areas and just getting hot, good food into people. Yes, just because food is love, and food is sustenance. And there’s just so many levels on which this is all so interconnected.

Christa Avampato  20:07

Jose Andres and his team were here in New York, when we had very long lines at food pantries, they are now in Poland, they are in Ukraine. Areas of natural disasters, where there have been fires, and they feed everyone for free. Imagine if you are a small child, and you have fled Ukraine, and you are in Poland right now, and you are getting this meal. And there is no way that that meal is not going to become a core memory as an adult, right? And I just think that’s going to be an incredible story and food can do that.

Vicki, this has been such a joy one to just talk to you about challah and learn more about it and be inspired by it. And any day that I get to talk about my love for food and the history of food and the memory of food is a good one, especially with a very, very dear friend. So thank you so, so much for joining us on the JoyProject. I hope you will come back and next time we can talk about the joy of local politics, which I would love to chat with you about

Vicki Eastus  21:19

This has been a joy. I look forward to breaking bread with you soon.

Christa Avampato  21:29

Yes, I think I’m thinking oh, I’m gonna have to invite myself over to Vicki’s apartment in Brooklyn and she’s going to teach me how to make challah.

Vicki Eastus  21:38

One of the other great thing when you’re doing it with a friend is there’s a lot of waiting so plenty of time for a cup of tea and conversations.

Christa Avampato  21:47

I love it. Two of my other favorite things. I love tea and conversation. Vicki, thank you so much for joining us.

Vicki Eastus  21:56

It was a pleasure.

Christa Avampato  21:58

I was so inspired by Vicki that yesterday after editing this episode, I popped into my kitchen and made my very first challah dough. It’s gone through one rise and so far it’s looking good. It’s in the fridge right now, rising overnight. Tomorrow we’ll see how it bakes up!

If like me and Vicki you love challah, you’ll want to check out the Instagram account @challahbakeoff. The premise of this account is simple and beautiful – pictures, stories, and inspiration of challah and the bakers who love it as much as we do. If you make challah and want to share your photo, post it on Insta and tag @challahbakeoff or DM your photo to them.

In this episode I allude to the fact that Vicki, and our friend Ashley from The Joy of Old Things episode and Edith from The Joy of Travel Planning, saved my life. They were incredible supports for me during my breast cancer battle in 2020 and 2021, and literally picked me up at my apartment and rushed me to the emergency room when an allergic reaction to chemotherapy shut down my lungs. Vicki sat with me in the ER long into the night until she was sure I was okay. I’m here because of them and I’ll never be able to thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me.

Two years ago this week, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and the anniversary happens to fall on Yom Kippur this year. As I kneaded the challah dough now in my fridge, I remembered Vicki’s reflection on saying prayers while making challah. I meditated on how lucky I am, how grateful I am, to be healthy, to be here, to have friends like Vicki, Ashley, and Edith, and so many others who rose up to help me when I needed them most. I put my love for them into that bread. I put that same love into this podcast, my writing, and my daily living. It reminds of that quote by Rumi that says, “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.” I’m grateful to have so many who were lamps and lifeboats and ladders for me. And I hope I can be all those things to other people.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me and JoyProject. A big thank you to Vicki for sharing her joy of baking challah with all of us.

You can find her at her on Twitter at @vickieastus and Instagram at @veastus.

You can find me on Twitter at @christanyc, on Instagram at @christarosenyc, and through the website for this podcast where you can also find links to everything we talk about on the podcast as well as show transcripts for each episode.

Happy Fall! I hope you’re finding joy in some way every day. Take care of yourself and take care of those in your corner of the world. Have a joy-filled week and I’ll chat with you again in two weeks on Tuesday, October 18th, when I’m back with another new episode of JoyProject.