Rosh Hashana Feast Part 1: Challah

The idea to make a Rosh Hashanah feast came from my amazing roommates. Every Friday we’ve been cooking a big end-of-week meal with old family favorites – last week Vanessa made Persian rice and chicken stew, and next week we’re all looking forward to Naomi’s lomo saltado and Peruvian rice. Seeing as this year the second day of Rosh Hanshana fell on a Friday and I had taken the day off from work, it only seemed appropriate that I find some of my family’s traditional Jewish recipes and spend the whole day (and I really mean the whole day) cooking.

I’m not gonna lie — even though I proposed the idea, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with it. For one thing, I often find Jewish cooking to be too heavy and too bland. So I initially (and, at this point, almost automatically) went to the internet to find recipes. But I had this weird feeling that no matter what I found, it wouldn’t be right. It would be someone else’s recipe. And even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the post-kiddush meals we have at home, I wanted to make food I would know and understand instinctually. So I emailed my mom.

In the end, it was a great move — cooking my own Jewish food ended up being one of the most rewarding culinary experiences of my short-lived kitchen career. I was able to take these family recipes and make them the way I always wanted them to taste, but never knew how to express. When I was rubbing spices into the meat, I suddenly had the itch to add cayenne to round out the flavor of the ketchup. So I did. While the tsimmis was simmering I impulsively added vanilla and nutmeg and extra apple to make it sweeter. I almost felt like I was transgressing by altering these time-honored recipes (what’s Judaism without a little bit of guilt, eh?), but as a result each bite tasted perfect. And I will always remember the feeling of making my family’s recipes my own.

Let’s start with the challah. My family doesn’t really make challah from scratch, so I used this recipe from Zabar’s. I mean, it’s Zabar’s, so it has to be trustworthy, right?

Ingredients:

-2 packages dry yeast

-2/3 cup warm water (ONLY IF YEAST IS NOT FAST-ACTING)

-5 egg yolks, lightly beaten

-3 whole eggs, lightly beaten

-7 tbsp canola oil

-1/2 cup sugar

-2 tsp salt

-4 1/2 cups flour

-1 egg yolk, beaten

Step 1: IF YOUR YEAST IS NOT FAST-ACTING, mix 2 packages of yeast with warm water to get the yeast to bloom. It might look something like this:

If it is fast-acting, and you mix it with water, it will quickly poof up and turn into something like this:

This is fine, and you can still use the yeast. It’s just an unnecessary step because your yeast is fast-acting, silly! Now who would make a mistake like that…

Step 2: In a large bowl, mix beaten egg yolks, beaten eggs, oil, sugar, salt, and yeast, until you get a super-amazing looking mixture, like this:

(Don’t worry, it smells heavenly)

Step 3: Add flour, 1 cup at a time, until you form stiff but still sticky dough. Normal people might do this with a dough hook attachment on their stand mixer. College students have to do this shetl-style: with a wooden spoon and a hefty helping of elbow grease.

Step 3.5: On a surface covered with flour, knead the dough. I skipped this step because toward the end of incorporating the flour, I had to switch from pounding the dough lump around the bowl to kneading it. My preferred way of kneading is to wring the dough like a wet towel and then fold it in half, so the floury bits get incorporated with the sticky-doughy bits. I am sure there is probably a better, more official way of doing this.

Step 4: Form the dough into a ball and roll it around a greased bowl until the ball is evenly coated. This step is ingenious.

Step 5: Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let rise for two hours. It should go from taking up one little corner of your cutting board:

To taking up the entire thing:

It’s kitchen magic!

Step 6: THIS IS THE BEST STEP. Punch the dough down! Really! Punch it!

Knead briefly.

Step 7: Roll dough into a long rope. It should look kind of like a giant lumpy tube sock.

Chop that dough into four even(ish) pieces.

Step 8: Now here’s the tricky part. Braiding. I used this tutorial for a round, braided, Rosh Hashana challah.

Start by weaving your four pieces together like this:

Going in a counterclockwise direction, take the strips that have been woven under (like the one on the bottom right) and cross them over the strips that have been woven over:

Now do the same thing, only going clockwise. Take the under strips and cross them over the over strips.

Repeat until you run out of dough. Tuck the ends under, and voila! Challah!

Step 9: Place the challah on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush with egg yolk and let rise until it doubles in size — about 45 minutes.

Step 10: Bake until golden brown — about 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees. But stick around to check! My oven runs hot, and unfortunately part of the challah came out a little burned after only 30 minutes in the oven.

Shmear with some honey to bring sweetness to your new year, and enjoy!

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