Normally, two loaves of elongated challah are served for Shabbat, but for the High Holidays a round challah, sometimes containing raisins, is customary. The round challah is fraught with meaning. It is symbolic of the crown of God, our Sovereign; it represents a year filled with neverending good. A ladder of dough placed on top represents the question of who will ascend or descend in health or wealth in the coming year. A lesser known custom is to bake the challah in the shape of a bird, based on Isaiah 31:5, “As hovering birds, so will the Eternal protect Jerusalem.”
Moist, cake-like challah is a big hit at my Rosh HaShanah open house. Divide the dough into two-thirds and one-third to make two loaves, but never use all the dough to make one giant crown, or the center will surely be raw after the normal baking time is reached.
- In a large mixer bowl combine 6 cups of the flour and the yeast. Stir to combine.
- Heat the water, margarine, food coloring, sugar, poppy seeds, and salt in a saucepan until very warm (140°F). Water should be uncomfortably hot to your finger but not hot enough to burn you. (It will feel like hot tap water.)
- Add the warm liquid mixture to the flour while the mixer is on low. As the liquid is being incorporated, add the eggs. Mix thoroughly.
- Gradually add the remaining flour only until a fairly firm dough is formed. This process should take about 7 minutes whether you are using the dough hook on your mixer or are kneading it by hand. The mixture will be satiny smooth.
- Preheat your oven to 400°F for 1 minute. Lightly grease a bowl with some oil, and turn the dough in the bowl to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the turned off oven until doubled in size, about 30–45 minutes.
- Punch down the dough and divide in half or in thirds. Roll each piece into a rope about 15 inches long. Hold one end 2 inches above the work surface and wrap the rest of the dough around it to make a large coil. Pinch the ends together to prevent unraveling while baking. Place the formed breads on parchment-lined or greased cookie sheets, and let rise in the previously warmed oven until light and doubled, about 25 minutes.
- Remove loaves from oven and reduce to 375°F. Brush the tops of the loaves with the egg wash and bake for 25–35 minutes, depending on the size of the loaves. When the bread is done, it will be golden brown and have a hollow sound when tapped.
- As no amount of eggs will make the challah look golden, coloring is added. You can substitute 1/8 teaspoon saffron or turmeric for color.
- The amount of flour you use will be directly related to the weather; on dry, wintry days you will need less flour than on a rainy spring day, because the cold dry air will make the dough drier and the moist air in spring will require more flour to absorb the extra moisture. The amount of flour is dictated by the feel of the dough.
- To let the dough rise overnight, spoon 1 tablespoon of oil inside a 2-gallon ziplock bag and rub to distribute. Place the dough in the bag, squeeze out any excess air, seal, and place in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, remove the bag from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding with step 6.
- Never cut bread hot from the oven. The steam will cause the knife to drag through the loaf and mat the dough together.