While we may not have been able to break bread together this Thanksgiving, we are able to bake bread together, thanks to the efforts of a local woman whose Zoom baking classes are gaining popularity and connecting people.
After working in the advertising business some years back, Monica DeMoulin went to culinary school. She never worked professionally with food, but used her skills while she spent the next years raising her two children. Just after moving to Malibu seven years ago, once her children were older, she made two trips with women’s groups to Israel. It was there, DeMoulin explained, “I really discovered and learned more about challah and its beautiful traditions.”
Challah is a braided bread from Jewish cuisine. It’s typically eaten on the Sabbath or Jewish ceremonial occasions. Although it’s a specialty food, it can generally be found at most supermarkets—although nothing beats a fresh baked loaf with its eggy goodness.
“With my background in food, I was interested in challah from a culinary standpoint and also a cultural standpoint,” the baker said. A few years ago, DeMoulin started small challah baking classes with friends in her Point Dume home “because people enjoy baking it and love the social aspect of it.” While the dough was proofing (rising prior to being baked), she and her student friends would go for walks on the beach nearby.
When COVID-19 struck, “like everybody else, I was looking for something to connect with people—to explore doing things I enjoy,” she said. So, the 54-year-old decided to offer a class on Zoom with a handful of friends. It was a success. DeMoulin’s students have called her a “good, patient teacher.”
And, as it happens, as two friends tell two friends and so on… DeMoulin has the early makings of a cottage business. Her last group class had just more than 70 participants. Once the group started getting big, DeMoulin realized the bakers needed individual attention so she started alternating between large group demonstrations and small, paid group workshops for individual attention. Although initially she was not charging for classes, there is now a nominal fee to cover the cost of supplies.
“I guess you could call it a business,” DeMoulin laughed, “but it’s not a profitable business.”
With many repeat “customers,” DeMoulin changes her topic weekly, even though challah is baked at every class. She’s gotten creative. In October, she baked a pumpkin spice challah. Her Thanksgiving class featured a centerpiece challah with ceramic bowls baked in the weave to serve dips.
Her style is hands-on, step-by-step in the workshops. In large classes, people can also make the dough during the 90-minute Zoom.
Students are now attending from “across the country—20 to 25 different states and around the world,” the Malibu resident described. “I have someone who wakes up in the middle of the night in Australia to join me.” Other students tune in from Scotland, South Africa and Colombia—and this is all from word of mouth.
One surprise student was the mother of local rabbi Michael Schwartz of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
DeMoulin is especially touched when multiple generations of families in different states have attended—”Families in different time zones and coasts.”
“All kinds of wonderful community connecting has come out of this. It’s been really beautiful,” she mused of family who can’t be physically together but still virtually learning.
Many of her students are not Jewish, too. When describing a student who wanted to learn the challah baking tradition for her Jewish boyfriend, DeMoulin said, “I know the boyfriend felt appreciated and welcomed. And to think I was able to provide that for that family, it made me feel so warm and so good.”
“Challah, to me, right now, is a means to connect to family, friends, tradition and heritage,” she said. “It always means that to me, with or without the pandemic, but now it’s become a conduit to all those things that are really important.”
DeMoulin can be found on various social media challah groups or emailed at email@example.com.