Dipping freshly baked challah in honey is a tradition observed during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This act combines the Shabbat bread with hopes for a sweet New Year.
The custom is to serve a round or spiral-shaped challah, one of the symbolic foods eaten during Rosh Hashanah. Typical is the challah baked in a circle to signify the desire for a long life, peace and universal redemption. Another type of challah is made in the shape of a crown, braided and twisted into a circle and topped by a smaller circle, symbolizing the ascent to heaven.
Middle Eastern Jews add saffron and raisins to make the bread special for the holiday. Because carrots were one of the few sweet-tasting vegetables accessible to Eastern European Jews, they became a substitute for the candied pumpkin and squash often eaten during the holiday.
Another concept is a break-apart challah. The dough is divided into several parts, shaped into small rounds and placed together in a greased round or loaf pan. Next, it is oiled lightly, left to rise, then brushed with egg and sprinkled with poppy seeds before baking. After this challah is baked, it will break apart easily and be ready to dip in honey.
A round braided challah filled with apples, pears or quince, representing the harvest, is an Italian custom and is included in the recipes that follow.
Potato challah, usually associated with times of grain shortages or a need for economy in the kitchen, was made by Russian and Polish Jews during the Jewish New Year. And for those who could not afford to bake cakes for Rosh Hashanah, there was the delicious bolas, made in Spain from sweetened challah dough, filled with candied orange peel and raisins, rolled into loaves, sliced and baked.
Although challah is easily bought at the bakery, many families are discovering the joy of making it at home. This tradition is important especially during holidays in which it has special meaning. There is pleasure and satisfaction in baking it yourself, and what better way to celebrate the holiday than with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Be sure to reserve some dough for small individual challahs, which will be a special treat for the children. Make it a family project, and allow them to braid and bake their own.
Rosh Hashanah round braided challah
1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water (110-115 F)
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup unsalted butter or nondairy margarine, melted
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron (optional)
2 tablespoons brandy
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup raisins, plumped
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water and sugar. Beat together eggs, honey and melted butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining 1 cup warm water, saffron and brandy, and blend well. Blend in the yeast mixture. Add flour, 1 cup at a time with salt, blending with a beater after each addition, until the dough is thick enough to work by hand. Spoon it out onto a floured board and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, gradually incorporating the raisins and enough additional flour to make a smooth and elastic dough. Place dough in an oiled bowl and oil top of dough. Cover loosely with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down dough and divide into 3 equal parts. Form each one into a rope about 26 inches long. Braid the ropes together and seal the ends by pinching.
Line a large heavy baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking mat. Oil the foil and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Remove the label and wash an empty 16-ounce can; oil its outside and place it in the center of the baking sheet, open end up. Transfer the challah to the baking sheet, forming it into a ring around the can; join and pinch together the ends of the braid. Cover dough with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about 40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Brush the challah with beaten egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a rack.
Serve the challah on a circular tray and set a bowl of honey in the center. Serve with sliced apples for dipping.
Makes 1 challah.
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