When we host Shabbat dinner, I usually pick up challah from one of my two favorite places in San Francisco. Usually, here or here. It simplifies things for me quite a bit and allows me to focus on the rest of the meal. Though I've made challah a few times and love the idea of the Friday ritual, most weeks I just don't have time to do it all.
This year for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), I decided to and start developing my own take. Unlike on Shabbat, challah is round for Rosh Hashanah to represent the cyclical nature of the year (which has come to a close). Many people add dried fruits and honey- wishes for a sweet New Year.
One of the things I love most about Judaism is the beautiful symbolism and inspiration it draws from the natural world. Rosh Hashanah is a harvest festival, a time to enjoy the bounty of the fall season. In my intro to Judaism class, I learned that almost all the Jewish festivals and holidays take place under a full moon. Before the invention of electricity, this is when it was lightest out in the fields at night.
Two of my most trusted resources for Ashkenazi Jewish cooking are Joan Nathan and Deb Perelman (of Smitten Kitchen). When I saw that Deb had adapted her challah formula over the years from Joan Nathan's I knew it was going to be not only fail-proof but phenomenal. I knew I wanted to add my own flair, so instead of apples, I used orange zest to give the bread a subtle infusion of orange, which turned out lovely with the honey (which I added a bit more of) and light sprinkling of sea salt. I wanted a unique take on challah that would go beautifully with dinner, yet not be so sweet that it seemed like dessert. If you prefer a sweeter loaf for Rosh Hashanah, I recommend adding golden raisins to the dough.
ORANGE HONEY ROUND CHALLAH
Serves: 8-10 (makes 1 round loaf)
Cooking time: 3 hours
Active time: 30 minutes
Tools: Microplane, pastry scraper, stand mixer (optional), and instant read thermometer
1 packet (1/4-ounce) active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/3 cup vegetable oil, plus a bit more for the bowl
2 large eggs plus 1 large yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 1/4 cups bread flour, plus a bit more for the countertop
Zest of 1/2 an orange
1 large egg
Flaked sea salt (optional)
Whisk yeast and 1 teaspoon honey into 2/3 cup warm water (making sure the water is not hot). Let it stand for 2-3 minutes- it will start to look foamy.
In a stand mixer bowl with a whisk attachment, pour in and whisk the yeast mixture, oil, remaining honey (1/2 cup), eggs and yolk. Zest half an orange with a microplane into the wet ingredients and continue to whisk until well-incorporated.
Switch the stand mixer attachment to a dough hook. Slowly add the salt, then flour. Mix on medium speed until the flour and wet ingredients blend well together into a craggy mass. Lower the speed and knead the dough for five minutes until smooth and elastic. The dough will be a tad sticky.
Coat a large mixing bowl with oil, place the dough in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for one hour.
After an hour of rest, your dough should almost double in size. At this point, remove it from the bowl, place it on your floured countertop, punch it down with your hands, and knead it again into a little ball. Place it in the bowl, re-cover it, and set aside for 30 minutes to rise again.
Now it's time to weave your bread! Using a pastry scraper, divide the dough into four pieces. Stretch each one carefully into a rope. I found it easier to hold the dough up high with one hand and stretch and squeeze vertically down with the other hand (as opposed to rolling it out on a counter). You need about 12 inches- don't worry if they don't look "pretty" and smooth. This is where I had to follow Deb's instructions and photo tutorial carefully:
"Arrange two strands in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a plus sign. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an 8-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move them over the leg to their right, i.e. jumping it. Take those legs that were on the right and again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you had extra length to your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. For me, this was enough. Tuck the corners/odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round."
Transfer your beautiful woven dough to a cookie sheet covered in parchment. Beat the egg until smooth and brush it over the challah. Let the challah rise for another hour. After it has rested for 45 minutes, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Right before you place your challah into the oven, brush it once more with the egg wash and sprinkle some flaked sea salt on top. Bake it for 40-45 minutes. Keep a close eye on it and check at 30 minutes, because it will become beautifully bronzed but will darken quickly. I didn't catch mine in time. If it starts to get too dark, cover it with foil. To check for doneness, the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees.
When the challah is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes, then place it on a cooling rack before serving. It can be made the morning of Rosh Hashanah or even one day ahead, but won't not last that long in my house if I'm not watching :).