With Rosh Hashanah approaching, Jewish cooks everywhere are cutting and chopping, searing and sauteing. And towering over our festive holiday spread stands the majestic spiral challah, the centerpiece of our High Holy Day celebration.
From "A Taste of Challah" by Tamar Ansh. Photo by Sharon Bentov
"The round challah represents the cycle of life and the cycle of the year," Maggie Glezer said recently in a phone interview from her Atlanta home; she is the author of the award-winning cookbook, "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs" (Artisan, $35).
"In Yiddish it's called faigele or 'little bird.' My hypothesis is originally it probably came from the Ukrainian round bread baked with a bird's head shaped in the center. Perhaps it became simplified, and they lost the bird. The bird represents the quote from Isaiah: 'As birds hovering, so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem.' The symbolism always harks back to something holy, so that we keep God in our sight at all times."
To shape the spiral -- or any shape using strands of dough -- Glezer offers an amazing tip to eliminate air pockets and produce even strands.
"At the American Institute of Baking they have a machine that takes the blobs of dough and sheets them out to a couple millimeters thick for an incredibly fine texture," she explained. "I thought, why couldn't you do that at home?"
For the Rosh Hashanah spiral, roll each portion of dough as thinly as possible into an approximate circle. Then roll the thin sheet tightly into a strand with your palms.
"To lengthen the strand, don't pull," she warned. "Push down, not out, letting the dough extend itself."
Braid the strands and join them to form a circle for the holiday. Braid loosely for the most defined shape.
"But whatever you do will be beautiful," Glezer assures us.
I found a similar technique in "A Taste of Challah" (Feldheim, $34.99) by Tamar Ansh. "This method makes a tremendous difference in how professional your challahs will look, rise and taste. It does take extra time, but it is well worth it," she said.
On this holiday, sweet foods are the order of the day "to usher in a sweet and delectable judgment," Ansh noted. Add raisins or more sugar to the dough or both, but Ansh has another trick up her sleeve: "After the challahs are egg-glazed and ready to be baked, I sprinkle each with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. The smell they emit while baking is absolutely heavenly, and the taste is out of this world. Truly a holiday treat!"
If adding raisins, Ansh suggests that instead of just adding them to the ball of dough, place them on the flat piece of rolled-out dough before you roll it up. "When you go to shape the dough," she explained, "the raisins will all be well hidden inside and will be delicious when the challah is sliced open."
"A Taste of Challah" is a step-by-step primer to making the perfect loaf, and challenges you -- indeed entices you -- to forego that store-bought challah and make it yourself. Its more than 350 photos guide you through the challah-making process with detailed instructions for creating everything from the Shabbat braided challah to challah napkin rings, flower challah rolls, even an intricate lattice-woven challah basket.
One whole section provides tips that demystify the process. "Do not let the challahs over-rise," Ansh cautioned. "When challahs over-rise, they become too light and airy, and later on, when they are glazed with egg they often burst and fall flat. Other times, although they may hold their shape after being egged, the braids may split and come apart in the oven while baking."
But what distinguishes this book most is its overriding sense of awe that this is no ordinary loaf. We see it in the quote by Rashi that opens the book -- "And there was a continual blessing in her dough" -- in the prayers and blessings included and the excursus on the laws of separating the dough, the obligation to separate a small piece of dough and sanctify it.
"According to the Sages, this is one of the few mitzvot for which the entire world was created," Ansh writes. "If challah is not separated when required, the grains are cursed and there is a shortage of food. But if the mitzvah is performed, the grains will grow in abundance and one's house will be blessed."
Glezer echoes the notion that bread is more than a mere accompaniment to a meal. "In the Torah the Hebrew word lechem is synonymous with food. A meal is not a meal unless you're eating bread. Otherwise it is just a snack."
From "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs" by Maggie Glezer.
2 envelopes (0.25 ounce each) or 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
5 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
3 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling pan and topping
2 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large or 4 medium (about 2 1/2 pounds) baking apples (preferably Braeburn)
In a large bowl, whisk together yeast and 1 cup of the flour. Then whisk in warm water until smooth. Let stand uncovered 10 to 20 minutes, or until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.
Whisk eggs, oil, salt and sugar into puffed yeast slurry until eggs are well incorporated and salt and sugar have dissolved. With your hands or a wooden spoon, stir in remaining 4 cups flour all at once. When the mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto your work surface and knead until smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. (Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough.) If dough is too firm to knead easily, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.
Place dough in the clean, warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough ferment for one hour, or until just slightly puffed.
Meanwhile, peel, quarter and core apples. Cut each quarter lengthwise in half. Then cut each slice crosswise in half for medium apples and in thirds for large, ending with large, squarish chunks. Measure 4 1/2 heaping cups of chunks (reserving extra for another use) and transfer them to a covered container.
After fermenting, sprinkle dough and work surface with flour. Cut dough into two equal pieces, keeping one piece covered while working with the other. Roll out dough into a 16-inch square about 1/8-inch thick. Scatter 1 heaping cup apples over center third of dough. Fold up bottom third to cover. Press dough into apples to seal around them. Scatter another heaping cup apples over lower half of folded and filled dough and fold top of dough over both layers to create a very stuffed letter fold. Press down on dough to push out air pockets and to seal dough around apples. Roll dough up from short side into a chunky cylinder. Push dough into a bowl, smooth side up. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with other piece of dough, using a second bowl. Let both doughs ferment for about one hour, or until slightly risen and very soft.
Oil two 8-inch round cake pans. Using as much dusting flour as needed, pat each dough half into a roughly round shape, keeping smooth side intact on top. You will not be able to deflate dough much because of apples. Slip dough into pans smooth side up and cover well with plastic wrap. (The loaves may now be refrigerated up to 24 hours, which will intensify flavor.) Let loaves proof until they have risen over edges of pans, about 30 minutes (or up to 90 minutes if previously refrigerated.)
Arrange oven rack in lower third position and preheat oven to 350 F.
When loaves have risen and do not push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush each with generous tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons sugar. Bake until very well browned, 45-55 minutes. (After the first 40 minutes, switch the pans from front to back and bake 5-15 minutes more.) Remove loaves from oven, unmold and cool on a rack.
Makes two 9-inch round challahs
Always Perfect No-Egg Challah
From "A Taste of Challah" by Tamar Ansh, www.tasteofchallah.com
16 to 17 cups freshly sifted white flour
4 3/4 to 5 cups warm water
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups sugar (see Note)
2 ounces fresh yeast or 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon salt
In a small pareve bowl or measuring cup, mix 1/2 cup boiling water and 1 cup tap water. Test with your finger to make sure it is very warm but not boiling. Water that is too hot kills the yeast activity.
Add 1/4 cup of the sugar to this water and then the yeast. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes to make sure the yeast starts bubbling. This means the yeast is activating. If the yeast doesn't bubble, it means the yeast is not good; discard, and start again.
In a large mixer bowl (or you can do this by hand), place in this order: oil, the remaining sugar, 2 cups warm water, salt, 8 cups flour. Mix very well until a thin batter forms. Add the bubbling yeast mixture and mix again. Add the remaining flour slowly, one or two cups at a time, until it is all mixed in.
Keep adding a quarter cup of water at a time to the dough until a pliable, smooth, and non-sticky consistency is reached. If the dough is too firm, add a bit more water and also 2 more tablespoons of oil. If the dough is too soft or wet, add a bit more flour, even if you have to go over the 17-cup limit. You will use about 5 cups water total. Climates, different flours, and different yeasts all make a vast difference in this stage.
Grease your hands or a large plastic spatula with a fine layer of oil. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix the dough at the very bottom of the bowl to ensure that all the flour is well mixed into your dough and that it is uniform in texture throughout. If there is excess flour on the bottom of the bowl, you may need to add a bit more oil to the bottom of the bowl before remixing. Use a little oil rather than water in order to keep the dough from becoming too sticky. In general, in order to keep your dough pliable, nonsticky, and smooth, use small amounts of oil on the outside of the dough, not extra flour. Too much flour dries out the dough, whereas the fine layer of oil keeps it from sticking and makes it easier to work with, helps it rise better, and enhances its overall taste.
Makes six large/ eight to 10 medium-sized or 30 to 35 small challahs.
Note: For sweeter challahs, add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar.
Sephardic Pumpkin Bread (Pan de Calabaza)
From "A Blessing of Bread: Recipes and Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs" by Maggie Glezer
1 envelope (0.25 ounce) or 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
About 3 3/4 cups bread flour, divided
2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt, plus 1 pinch for glaze
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg, plus 1 for glaze
1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree
Sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, cardamom, ginger and 2/3 cup of the flour. Whisk in warm water until smooth. Let stand uncovered 10-20 minutes, until it begins to ferment and puff up slightly.
Whisk sugar, salt, oil, 1 egg and puree into puffed yeast slurry until well combined. With your hands or wooden spoon, stir in remaining flour all at once. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it onto your work surface. Knead until well mixed, fairly smooth and firm. (Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough.) If dough is too firm, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add flour by the tablespoon until dough is firm, easy to knead and not at all sticky.
When dough is fully kneaded, set it in the cleaned, warmed bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. (Dough can be refrigerated at this point for up to 24 hours.) Let dough ferment until tripled in bulk, two to three hours (an additional hour if refrigerated).
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or oil them. Divide dough into two equal loaves. Place each on a baking sheet. To form a spiral, roll each dough half into a very thin sheet. Tightly roll sheet into a long, even strand. Wind dough loosely around, starting at the center, leaving plenty of space between loops. Bind last loop tightly to force dough to rise in center. Tuck end of strand loosely under the last loop. Tent dough well with plastic wrap. Let loaves proof until tripled in size, 60 to 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange oven racks in upper and lower third positions and remove any racks above them. Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat remaining egg with pinch of salt for glaze.
When loaves have tripled in size and don't push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush with egg glaze. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if using. Bake until very well browned, 35 to 40 minutes. (After first 20 minutes, switch pans from top to bottom and front to back to brown evenly.) Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Makes two 1-pound challahs.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, $19.95) and may be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.