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Mark the Jewish New Year with a customary treat

Though most people now buy their Rosh Hashanah challah from a bakery, making it at home is a wonderful way to connect with tradition. Epicurious presents tips for making the perfect challah for the Jewish New Year.
/ Source: Epicurious

"Bread ... is the most important food in the Jewish diet," writes Maggie Glezer in her book, "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs." "Jewish law says that as long as bread is served, the fare offered constitutes a meal." At every meal, observant Jews break a piece off a loaf and recite a special prayer, called "hamotzi," before eating it. "Making a motzi," as the process is called, is one of the central rituals of daily life.

For the Sabbath and holidays, Ashkenazi (European) Jews bake a special bread called challah, a rich, golden loaf that's related to Russian/Polish/Ukrainian babka and Easter breads such as Greek tsoureki and Italian pane di pasqua. According to Glezer, challah "seems to have originated in Germany, probably in the 15th century, with Jewish housewives copying their gentile neighbors' braided Sunday loaves." The soft, eggy dough is often shaped into elaborate braids, brushed with an egg wash to produce a shiny crust, and sprinkled with poppy seeds to represent biblical manna from heaven.

On Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — challah takes on an extra significance. Representing hopes for "a sweet new year," the dough is studded with raisins, and pieces are dipped in honey before being eaten. Munching on these delicious morsels, celebrants pray that God will bestow on them a fate as pleasant as the bread's flavor. The bread becomes a tangible symbol of the holiday's deeper meaning.

Though most people now buy their challah from a bakery, making it at home is a wonderful way to connect with tradition — and produce a glossy, superfresh loaf worthy of its place of honor on the holiday table. For her book, Glezer gathered family recipes from generations of Jewish bakers, and here she shares three that are perfect for the High Holidays. Click on the links above for the recipes, and scroll down for Glezer's tips on making the perfect challah.

Tips for success

  • Give it time: The first recipe Glezer shared, My challah, is her personal favorite. "I like my challah fairly sweet, so that's how I proportioned this recipe," she says. The dough has plenty of honey for flavor, and plenty of eggs for richness. " This recipe can be slightly tough for beginners, though," she warns. The dough should be fairly stiff, but if it's too stiff, the lack of liquid will affect the yeast. If it takes much longer to rise than the time stated in the recipe, this is probably the problem. "Don't worry," advises Glezer. "Eventually it will double in volume." Here are two tricks for preventing this problem: If you use King Arthur brand flour, which absorbs more liquid, add a bit of extra water. Second, try putting a full pan of hot water in the oven, then place the dough on the shelf above it. This will help create the warm, moist environment the yeast needs to work.

  • Embrace add-ons: Czernowitzer challah, a recipe Glezer adapted from a German Jewish version, is "practically foolproof," she says. While slightly less flavorful than Glezer's own recipe, it can be punched up with the addition of saffron and raisins. "Be sure to knead in the raisins right at the end," advises Glezer. "You don't want to crush them, which would release their sugars into the dough and interfere with the action of the yeast."
  • Keep it rough: Apple challah, a creation of Glezer's, is perfect for Rosh Hashanah, when apples and other sweet foods are eaten. "This is a rustic loaf," she says. "Don't worry about making it perfect — when you push down the dough to fill the pan, allow the apples to break through the skin. The less polished it looks, the prettier the finished loaf will be." The recipe calls for Braeburn apples, but if they're not available in your area, you can use any variety that will hold its shape during baking. Glezer advises baking the bread for the full time, or the extra moisture from the apples will keep the loaves raw in the center. "If you find that they're browning too quickly, tent them with foil or turn down the oven slightly," she says.

  • Break it up: If you find it hard to set aside a large chunk of time for baking, Glezer has this tip for splitting up the process over three days: Mix the dough, place it in a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours. The next day, remove the dough from the refrigerator, let it ferment until it's doubled in bulk, then shape the loaves. Refrigerate the loaves for up to 24 hours, then take them out and let them rise until they've tripled in size. You may find that they've risen somewhat in the refrigerator and won't need much additional time. Bake as usual. Don't worry if the loaves go into the oven cold — this will not significantly change the baking time.

Pinwheel bound
This yin yang–inspired pinwheel shape is especially appropriate for the High Holidays. The directions may seem intricate, but once you actually try it with the dough in front of you, you will see how easy it is. If you wish, you can fill the twist with nuts, raisins, and/or cinnamon sugar, in which case you should bake it in a pie plate. If you leave it unfilled, it will be a more spread–out and highly delineated twist if proofed in a pie plate to help maintain its shape and baked freestanding on a baking sheet.

1. Line a 10–inch (25–cm) pie plate with parchment paper. To prepare two tapered strands, roll out 2 pounds (900 grams) of dough into an 18–inch (46–cm) round about 1/8–inch (3–mm) thick. Cut the circle in half and slide the top half around so that the rounded edge is now closest to you.

2. Spread or sprinkle both hemispheres with a filling, if desired, leaving a 1/2–inch (12–mm) border around the edges. Roll up one piece of dough like a rug, starting with the rounded edge and ending up at the long straight cut. Seal the seam by pinching the long edge into the roll; use a little water if you need it to help the dough stick to itself. Starting from the center of the roll, lightly press the roll toward the open ends to force out any air bubbles that may have formed during rolling. Seal the ends of the roll by pinching them together. Check the seals again, then roll the strand under your hands to create a tapered strand with a thicker middle and slender pointed ends. Repeat with other piece of dough.

3. To create a twisted teardrop shape position the strands so that the seal is facing down and fold both strands in half to make two U shapes. Ask a helpful person to hold both ends of a chopstick or other thin stick vertically. Pull the strand around it, using it to anchor the thick center of the strand. Now cross the ends over each other, pulling them tight to make as many twists as possible.

4. When you're finished, just slide the chopstick out of the top. Repeat with the other strand.

5. Now curve one twist into a C shape and set it into the lined pie pan. Loosely fit the fat end of the second twist into the concave curve of the first and wind its end around, so the ends of both twists are wrapping in the same direction — just like a pinwheel. Let the round proof in the pan. Then, for a tight high circle, bake the twist in the pan; for a more spread-out and defined round, slide the proofed bread on the parchment onto a baking sheet just before baking.

Step-by-step demo photos by Jack Yeazel