For me, the compulsion comes ’round to challah, or should I say, to the round challahs baked for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which in 5776 starts at sundown Sunday. Different recipes call to me like the siren song of the perfect chocolate chip cookie.
The shiny braided egg breads, typically ripped apart with gusto for blessings on the Sabbath, symbolize continuity when they are turbanized or when their doughy ends are made to meet for the High Holidays. Claudia Roden characterizes round challahs in her “The Book of Jewish Food” as “where there is no beginning and no end.” The sesame or poppy seeds often sprinkled on top represent manna that fell from heaven, she writes; three ropes of dough that make up a braid stand for truth, peace and justice.
Besides their shape, New Year challahs have something else in common: a built-in bit of sweetness, to encourage the same in the year to come. Studding the dough with raisins is a common — and, to my mind, unfortunate — way to go; an added teaspoon of honey in the mixer bowl is all it takes.
I study challah recipes with a Talmudic fervor. The remnants of testing take up more space than anything else in my freezer. An egg dough is a supple, forgiving one. It feels more relaxed, even before the first rise, than any other bread dough I’ve had my hands in. Over-proofing on the first go-round isn’t a deal-breaker, but the shape will suffer if you hit the snooze button for the shorter, second rise. Experienced challah makers know that adding more eggs or egg yolks for the sake of upping the golden color of the interior crumb doesn’t quite work, so sometimes they add a drop of food coloring. I’m not judging.
My friend Patti and I are compelled to launch into challah production just before every Rosh Hashanah. We could do it earlier and freeze the breads, but we like doling them out to family and friends when they’re same-day fresh. The trade-off rhythms of mixing, kneading, proofing and shaping work particularly well between the two of us. Of the five or six loaves we typically make in an afternoon, one spreads flatter than the rest, and Patti works the raisins into her own doughs. The challahs are always appreciated, and sure, great French toast is just one serrated knife and an egg-milk bath away.
Oddly enough, the recipe we use most often came via an old employer of hers, from an Irish Catholic cook she never met. The annual unearthing of the laminated, quarter-century-old page is my dear friend’s significant contribution to the proceedings. Tradition. I try those other recipes on my own time.
Still — I’ve got a few days to see whether Patti is game to go in a new direction: stuffed challah. It might just be the ultimate sweet-special combination to usher in the New Year. A stuffed challah is glorious and easy to customize, with layers that show like babka.
Shulie Madnick, whose recipes and stories have appeared in Food over the years, showed me the way.
The Washington area food blogger and travel writer bakes challah every Sabbath, as was the practice in many of her friends’ homes when she was growing up in an Indian-Israeli community in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. Looking to complement her Rosh Hashanah dishes — lamb biryani, veal-and-beef-stuffed artichoke bottoms in a spicy red sauce and the cornstarch-thickened, sweetened milk custard called halwa — Madnick figured out a way to capture fruit and/or nut fillings within each rope of dough. She braids those ropes in such appealing ways as to create almost a new class of High Holiday challah.
Jewish food historian and cookbook author Joan Nathan says stuffing for challahs seems to be a recent embellishment. “We were just in Hawaii and had a beautiful challah stuffed with cherries, sort of like a German stollen,” she says. But the practice of stuffing doughs has a long history, Nathan says, traced to fancy breads that sometimes were the entire meal.
Madnick worked on her base challah dough over many years. It’s not too eggy and, like others, not so fussy. Her flavor combinations can be seasonal: apples and quince in the fall; cranberry, orange and nigella seeds in the winter; cherry and oats in the spring. Rosh Hashanah stuffed challahs call for something sweet: chopped dates, fresh figs, even marzipan. Each sub-portion of dough that might have been a simple rope in a braided loaf of challah is first rolled out to a thin rectangle, then swabbed lightly with a syrup or jam to help hold the chopped fruit or nuts in place. Once the dough is rolled up, the filling stays contained, allowing for the usual braiding and shaping.
Except Madnick’s techniques rise above the norm, appropriately. She’ll do a four- or six-part braid, winding it in on itself like a nautilus. (If you’re able to count 12 bumps from all the braids, Roden says, they can represent the 12 tribes of Israel.)
Or she’ll start with what the Twitter-savvy will recognize as a hashtag of four filled ropes, weaving the remainder of each length over and under to form impressive topography.
Her third formation is most gracious, and suited to the holiday. She nestles an ovenproof cup right into a braided round of dough, so that it bakes firmly in place. Filled with honey at serving time, the vessel is in a perfect position for guests to dip and share the sweetness.
More complex braids, more flavor combinations to test: Stuffed challah could be the answer to an obsessive’s egg-bread habit.