High Holiday Challah

Poppy seed dough with egg wash.
Poppy seed dough with egg wash. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

Challah's soft shoulders are used to bearing the weight of ceremony; I like that in a bread. For centuries, Jews have fashioned its egg-rich dough into braided loaves for their weekly Sabbath table.

For Rosh Hashanah, the dough is coiled into rounds of a higher symbolic order. That's when I enjoy making it the most -- wrapping turbans imbued with hopes for a sweet New Year.

Raisins are usually folded into the challah doughs of High Holidays, but frankly, I find them far too obtrusive. (Admittedly, I have raisin issues.) For the year 5767, I have the blessing of Tina Wasserman's recipe, which deploys the subtle sweetness of poppy seeds throughout an irresistible cake-like interior.

Wasserman is the food columnist for Reform Judaism magazine, an experienced cooking instructor and occasional contributor to these pages. Each year she invites about a hundred people to her home in Dallas for Rosh Hashanah and makes mass quantities of more than 20 different dishes to feed them all.

The results of a few recent challah test runs have won me over. Of course, Wasserman has two decades' worth of testimonials to go by.

"It's my challah that people ask about and devour throughout the meal," she says. "It gives me great pleasure . . . but unless I make an extra loaf and keep it hidden, there are never any leftovers for the next day!" Her family was somewhat dismayed that the recipe would be made public.

The recipe has a feature that infrequent bread bakers can appreciate: a foolproof approach to yeast. It also calls for a touch of yellow vegetable food coloring, which should not be a deal breaker for purists.

"I tried to add more yolks or whole eggs to make the dough more rich looking," Wasserman says. "Those additions didn't alter the color but definitely changed the consistency for the worse." The coloring is a better alternative than turmeric or annatto powders, she says. It does not affect the flavor and creates a lovely backdrop for those seeds.

A voluptuous, warm pillow to knead, two relatively brief risings -- one of which can be largely accomplished in the refrigerator overnight (see "Less Fuss," at right) -- and the fact that this challah makes killer French toast all seal the deal for me, as sweet rewards.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

For more of Tina Wasserman's recipes, go tohttp://www.cookingandmore.com.


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