Normalize (featuring Challah Bread)
I’m incredulous that she doesn’t haunt me.
Because she said she would.
Shannon sat at the Formica dining room table in the open kitchen/dining/living room of my Laurel Canyon bungalow, her wise green eyes peering out under heavy lids, her mind steady and heedful while swimming through the lakes of Coors Light that would eventually drown her, and she said, “If I ever die, I will haunt the fuck out of you.”
I remember my heart racing at her decree as nothing is more thrilling than taunting annihilation when you’re 24 years old.
“If I ever die, I will haunt the fuck out of YOU!!!” I retorted with a squeal, feeling as though there was no place I’d rather be in the world.
I’m furious that she doesn’t haunt me because I can’t remember what else she said. It’s been 12 years since her death and I can’t properly call up her cadence, patience, or wit. I can’t hear the Texas twang she’d slip into after a few beers or her chuckle evolving into a side-splitting howl.
We met in New York at the Theatre Arts program at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. She followed me out to Los Angeles two years after I moved to pursue fame and fortune, and we commiserated over drinks regularly. We were young and ambitious, she a whip-smart comedienne who could type 60 words per minute, oscillating stand-up open mic nights with temp jobs, me a starlet wannabe auditioning for commercials for products like tampons and chewing gum, but never booking anything.
Our tradition was stretching afternoon chats into evening discussions into intimate late-night confessionals while consuming gallons of booze and my homemade bread. Our aspirations and failures with baguettes or boules, our histories and fantasies with breadsticks or brioche. She could normalize my chaos in a way that made those talks imperative for my survival. And there was fresh bread, essential for hers.
Baking takes time and patience, which I had plenty of between auditions. When I knew Shannon was coming over, I’d get started early. First thing in the morning I would wake up a few teaspoons of napping yeast with a bath of warm water. The yeast, once awake and freshly bathed, craved a sugary snack, much like myself, and so I’d feed it some sugar which it devoured happily. Waiting 10 minutes or so I’d pour the gently bubbling beige liquid into my green Kitchen Aid mixer, a housewarming gift from my dad when I moved to LA. By the cupful, I’d add flour, and then a few eggs and yolks, then a mixture of honey and oil, more water, more flour, and some salt. At first, the flour would refuse to coalesce, clinging for dear life to the sides of the bowl, but then, speck by speck, it would be seduced into the sticky lagoon of ingredients at the bottom of the basin. The head of the mixer would bob up and down like the oil wells you’d see on the drive to the airport. The hook lobbed and flung the concoction around the metal bowl, folding air into the dough as it formed. Sticky but mixed, I’d scrape the dough out of the machine and set it to rise in a lightly oiled bowl for a few hours. Like a napping child, it would need to be checked in on throughout the day and then punched down. Hrm. Note to self, don’t have children.
The dough would grow and shift over hours, the yeast devouring the flour and sugar, creating patchworks of air and crumb, like a sweet billowy pillow fort.
Then I would separate it into four balls, roll them into long dough ropes and braid them together, popping the sheet pan into the oven right before Shannon arrived.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” I whined into my IPA, my palate slightly more refined than Shannon’s. “I go in for these auditions and I feel my soul evaporating. They’re looking for girls thinner, prettier, more confident, and focused than me. I want this, but it doesn’t feel enjoyable anymore. I want to sink my teeth into something real, NOT trying to hawk feminine hygiene products… and being rejected! It all feels so empty. I wish I could understand what I’m supposed to do!”
Shannon shook her head with a little smirk.
“What????” I asked, frustrated by her smugness as I rose to go into the kitchen.
Then the dial on my white plastic kitchen timer struck zero and buzzed excitedly on the counter. At that point, I had been baking for pleasure for about 5 years and my instinct knew the loaf was done. The smell changes slightly. It shifts from little whiffs of yeasty secrets to a bellowing announcement of the marriage of flours.
The door of my yellow O’Keefe and Merritt wall oven, which occasionally fell off its hinge when I opened it, squeaked but remained attached. The braided challah, painted with egg whites and sprinkled with sesame seeds, glowed amber like an August sunrise from its parchment covered sheet pan. I tipped it back and tapped its bottom listening for the telltale hollow sound of a perfectly baked loaf.
Just like this afternoon.
This afternoon, 26 years after Shannon promised she’d haunt me, I baked loaves of bread to deliver to clients quarantined inside the pandemic Twilight Zone episode that we’re living in. Because now I’m a sober chef living in Portland, Oregon, with a new focus on freshly baked bread, “The Baking Bandit.”
I’d give anything for Shannon to haunt me so I could show her how much has changed and the few things that remain the same. I want to ask her how much she knew. That day at my dining room table when we were careless and 24, did she know I would stop acting and start cooking professionally? Did she know I would move back to New York and then to Portland? Did she know she was going to die?
I’m heartbroken that she doesn’t haunt me because I could really use an 8-hour conversation with my best friend to normalize the fear and anxiety I’m experiencing.
But I acquiesce that she’ll never haunt me. I can only keep her alive with the memory of her smug smirk at my dining room table, knowing way more than I did.
I’d give anything to say, “I would not be where I am today without you. I’m sorry I didn’t know how to help. Thank you, my friend.”
Makes 2 loaves
- ½ cup lukewarm water
- 2 ¼ teaspoons yeast
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 whole eggs
- 3 egg yoks, 1 egg white reserved for later use
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 tablespoon water
- 4 ½ teaspoons salt
- 4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon sesame seeds for sprinkling on before baking
- Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and then stir in the sugar. Let sit for 10-15 minutes for the yeast to become foamy.
- Pour the mixture into the bowl of a mixer or into a bowl if a mixer isn’t available.
- In a small bowl, mix together the eggs, egg yolks, oil, honey, water, and salt.
- Alternating between wet and dry ingredients, stir the egg mixture and then the flour into the yeast mixture in the bowl. Knead for 5-8 minutes with dough hook or by hand. The dough will be sticky so you can add a little more dough, but the high moisture content in this dough gives it its softness after baking so don’t add too much. It will be sticky and that’s ok.
- Lightly oil a large bowl and then turn the dough into the bowl, greasing the top and bottom of the dough. Let it rise for 2 hours in a warm spot.
- Punch the dough down and let it rise for another hour.
- On a floured board, cut the dough into 8 pieces and then roll them into 14 inch dough ropes. Make 2 braids using 4 ropes each following this technique: https://katu.com/afternoon-live/cooking-recipes/alisons-braided-bread
- Cover braids with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise for an hour.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Using the reserved egg white mixed with a tablespoon of water, paint the egg wash over loaves and then sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden.
And again, in case you didn’t miss my subtle link above, here’s me braiding a loaf of challah on KATU’s Afternoon Live: