I made challah for Yom Kippur. Round, braided challah. You may be unimpressed, but I beam with pride. And I beam for two reasons. The first is that I am not now, nor have I ever been, Jewish. In fact, the father of the man with whom I live refers to me as “The Shiksa.” (A term of endearment, he tells me, the derogatory nature of the name notwithstanding.) The second is that I was tormented during its conception.
Since I will one day, no doubt, be credited with taking the beloved son of this retired cantor from the religion of his people, I decided to leave as little room for criticism as possible (not that this is actually possible, as The Son, Evan, points out to me regularly). The father tells me the challah must, MUST be round and braided. “Is there a rule?” I ask. Yes, he tells me, it is a rule. I think it must be important, so I ask what the round and braided challah represents. He is quiet for a moment, contemplative I assume, incorrectly. His mother made it round and braided for Yom Kippur, and it must be made as his mother made it. Apparently, something bad—or at least terribly wrong—happens in homes that harbor incorrectly shaped and textured challah.
Okay, I say, and I begin by doing research. I speak to the family, I read recipes and articles on the internet, I refer to the books on Judaism left here and there after Evan’s father’s weekly visits. No one can recall a round and braided challah. They remember an oblong challah—that one was braided. Maybe. “It’s been years, who can remember?” “Does it matter?” they ask me. I’m getting the feeling it does. “The challah MUST be round and braided (did I just hear him mutter ‘shiksa’?) for Yom Kippur,” he reminds me when we speak about the upcoming holiday. It feels like it matters.
I spend hours reading articles and recipes on every Jewish site I can find. Not one tells me that the Yom Kippur challah is round and braided. To the contrary, I read that the traditional bread for Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, is a round and braided challah. I read that it symbolizes a crown at the head of the year.
I go back to the family with the information I find. No one can quite envision a round, braided challah for Yom Kippur. He, however, stands firm. “It must be round and braided. That’s how my mother made it.” Period.
So, I made a round, braided challah for Yom Kippur. It was delicious. Before dinner, we all discussed what I had read about the Rosh Hashanah bread being round and braided, and the meaning attached to it. “Hm,” he says. “Maybe my mother’s bread wasn’t round and braided…who knows, who remembers.” And, with a flick of his hand, he says, “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
(Adapted from The Jewish Woman at Chabad.org)
Yield: 2 large loaves or 4 medium loaves
1½ cups warm water
1 package instant active dry yeast
½ cup Orange Blossom honey
1 tablespoon oil
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
5-8 cups flour
1. Proof your yeast by adding the package of yeast to the warm water in a warmed bowl. Add the tablespoon of sugar (this not in addition to the ingredients above; it is all of the water and sugar you will use). Stir and leave alone until the mixture foams. If it does not foam after about 10 to 15 minutes, your yeast is dead and will need to begin again with a new package of yeast.
2. If your yeast has foamed, combine the remainder of the ingredients in the bowl, along with the flour, one cup at a time until the dough is just firm enough to knead. Continue to add flour as necessary.
3. Knead on a floured surface for approximately 10 minutes, until the dough is firm and smooth.
4. Form the dough into a ball and oil the top of the bread. Let rise in a warm place until doubled. This can take at least 1½ to 2 hours, or more, depending on how warm and draft-free your kitchen is. When the dough doubles in volume, punch down.
5. Divide dough into eight oblong pieces, and roll each piece into about 15 inch lengths, about one inch in diameter. (If you want to add raisins, using rolling pin, roll out each piece, sprinkle in raisins, and then roll toward you to return to rope shape.)
6. I didn’t photograph the process of making the round braided bread, and strongly suggest you go to Chabad.org or another site to see how that’s done. The oblong bread, or braid made into a round bread, shown above, are made by taking four of the strands and crimping them together at one end. Braid the strands, right strand over the center stand and under the left stand/left strand over center and under right/right under center and over left…until you reach the bottom of the strands. Crimp the ends together and tuck under.
7. Place loaf on a greased baking pan. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until browned on top. Cool on wire racks.
This third loaf is the one Evan designed and I made in case anyone actually commented on the shape and/or texture of the bread. The nails are raisins, but slivered almonds would make a nice statement for Halloween challah...if you aren't already in enough trouble for the Flip o' the Bird Challah. Just use some of the egg wash for adhesive.
Challah makes delicious French toast, too. Store your challah (and all bread) in a closed paper bag placed in a closed plastic bag.