Standard, long loaves of challah are supposed to be served every Friday night at Shabbat dinner; secular chickie that I am, I'm not that observant. But it is traditional to serve a round loaf at Rosh Hashanah, representing the seamless transition from one year to the next as well as the circle of life. That's a celebration I can support.
I make the best challah, period -- I will often tout a recipe as being very good, but this one is absolutely definitive, truly truly truly. I can't tell you where I found the recipe -- some cookbook I blundered into years and years ago. But it is cherished, and my new year simply isn't complete without it.
I love to bake bread, and often say that I should do it more often ... alas, I bake it for Rosh Hashanah and then get waylaid afterwards. The challah isn't difficult, though you do have to commit to it for about 3 hours; it's not a recipe where you can ignore the dough while it rises, or leave it in the refrigerator to rise slowly overnight.
But every moment -- and every globule of cholesterol -- that you invest in this is worth it, trust me! Soft, fragrant, luscious ... this is bread at its most perfect.
At Rosh Hashanah it is customary to add raisins to the challah, with hopes for a sweet new year; I brush the top of the bread with a honey-egg wash, as well, to increase the symbolism. And sesame seeds are sprinkled on top to represent wishes for plentiful blessings.
I might someday vary the chicken dish I serve at Rosh Hashanah, and I usually change the side dish (I'm thinking of carrots this year, though I'm unsure how I'll serve them; I've also considered yams). I might serve sparkling apple cider one year, though this year I'm serving sparkling pomegranate juice (chosen because it's made from small seeds -- more hopes for bounty). But the one constant in my holiday tradition is that I will always serve a round challah, homemade.
Follow along with the easy instructions below (for standard loaves -- we made one of each), with photos featuring both Tom and me as we create our holiday masterpiece ....
5 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup light raisins
1/4 cup sugar
2 packages quick-rise yeast
1 stick butter, melted
1-1/4 cups very warm -- but not hot -- half-and-half
4 eggs; separate 1 of the eggs
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 140F. Grease two 8"x4" loaf pans.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, salt, raisins and sugar; make a well in the center, then place the yeast into the well.
Combine the butter and half-and-half; pour over the yeast, and stir to mix well. Stir in the eggs and the egg white, one at a time, until a rough dough is formed.
Sprinkle about 1/2 cup flour onto the countertop, and place the dough onto the flour.
Knead until the dough has absorbed the flour, adding more flour as needed if the dough is sticking to the countertop. When the dough is shiny and very pliable, it is ready.
Grease another large mixing bowl and place the dough into it; turn the dough over to grease all sides of it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and then place a towel over the bowl
Place into the oven and let the dough rise for 30 minutes.
Punch down the dough, knead it for 3 minutes (with a bit of flour added if it's sticking to the countertop), and re-cover it with the plastic wrap and the towel. Place it into the oven and let it rise for 20 minutes.
Repeat the last step: punch down, knead, re-cover, let rise for 20 more minutes.
Uncover the dough, place it onto the countertop, and divide it in half. Cover one half of the dough while working with the other.
Cut the dough into 3 pieces and make an 18" rope with each piece. Lay them next to each other and braid the length of the dough. Tuck the ends under and place the braid into one of the greased loaf pans; repeat with the other half of the dough.
Combine the egg yolk, the honey and the water; brush this mixture over both loaves, making sure to get into the nooks and crannies. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
Place the loaf pans into the oven and let the dough rise for 20 minutes.
Raise the oven temperature to 200F, and let the bread bake for 20 minutes.
Raise the oven temperature to 275F, and let the bread bake for 15 minutes.
Raise the oven temperature to 350F, and let the bread bake for 10-15 minutes, until it is golden brown. Remove from the oven.
Let the bread rest for 5 minutes, then insert a knife between the bread and the loaf pan to help loosen the bread. (The honey mixture makes it tend to stick.) Remove the bread from the pan and let cool completely on a rack ... yes, I know this is a form of torture, but it's necessary to let the bread finish.
Makes 2 loaves of bread.