My daughter: It's the whole world's birthday?
Me: "Yes, love. Remember that story about separating light from dark and sky from ground and water from land and adding plants and animals and people and then God--"
Her: YeESSS, MAMA! Yes, I remember. And then it was the first Shabbat. But you didn't tell me that means it's a birthday for the world!
Me: "Well, love, it's a birthday for the world. So we're going to go to synagogue on Saturday and Sunday, and you can wear your new shoes."
Her: Okay, but when are we making the cake?
Me: "What, love?"
Her: We're going to have to make birthday cake!
Me: "Oh, of course. We'll make a cake."
Her: Yippee!! I love Rosh Hashanah!!]
We eat sweet foods that we may have a sweet new year. Traditionally we eat apples and honey. (My girls don't like honey; I let them dip in maple syrup. I'm awesome like that.) We eat round foods to symbolize the cyclical calendar concluding and beginning. And we eat the foods we always eat, like challah. Except: that instead of a traditional braided challah, we make it round. Cute, no?
So here's my superpower. I make the world's best challah. I'm not bragging; it's just a fact. It's good to know your strengths, right? This was a recipe of my mother's that I've tweaked for years, taking it from great to I-should-be-given-a-satin-cape. Trust me that if you enjoy making bread, you must try this. But be warned: I will be a total snob if you take shortcuts. This is not bread-machine challah. I don't even like to use the KitchenAid. This is get your hands dirty, make your wrists tired, put your love into your kitchen challah. Superheroes earn their legions of adoring fans, right? They don't push gadget buttons and then go fold laundry.
This challah makes the World a better place and this week I am making it for Her birthday, after all.
2 cups warm water
7 tsp. yeast
8-10 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 pound stick margarine or butter (must be margarine for parve challah)
pinch of saffron (optional)
zest of one clementine*
4 eggs, beaten**
1 egg, for glaze
demerara or similar coarse sugar
*You can leave out the clementine zest if you must, or substitute with zest of 1/2 an orange, but I'm disclosing to you that this is the secret ingredient that makes this bread over-the-top awesome. So don't leave it out.
**It is worth buying quality eggs. Free range eggs are much yellower and will make your bread so much prettier. You might not even need the saffron, and even the most expensive eggs are cheaper than saffron.
Mix water and yeast in a large bowl. Add three cups flour and one cup sugar. Stir gently and let rise 30 minutes or more in a warm place, covered with a dishtowel. (I stick this right on the stove top as other stuff bakes in the oven below, and for good measure I turn on the hood light to shine down on it. Go yeasties, go!)
In another large bowl, mix five cups of flour and half a cup of sugar and the salt. (Sift, if you're the compulsive sifting type. I never bother.) Add margarine and cut in with a pastry cutter (or two knives) until texture is like coarse meal.
After the yeast mixture has its first rise, add four beaten eggs, saffron and zest and stir well. (It will deflate pitifully.) Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix well. Add additional flour as necessary if dough is too sticky. Knead well (with more flour, if necessary) until dough is smooth and elastic. Don't skimp the kneading!
Lightly oil a third bowl. Transfer dough to oiled bowl and cover with a dishtowel. Let rise in a warm place, covered, at least two hours. (Or, stick it in the fridge overnight and let it have a long, slow rise in there. Just make sure you allow time for it to come to room temperature before you start shaping it.)
Remove dough to a lightly floured work surface (and have extra flour on hand for emergency sticking). Punch down the dough and knead it a bit to warm it up, then divide dough into balls for bread strands and braid accordingly. Depending on the sizes of your challahs, you have enough dough in front of you for up to four loaves.
Place braided loaves on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats. Let them rise one more time for as long as you can stand it, up to several more hours.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Beat the last egg, and glaze the loaves. Sprinkle with demerara sugar.
Bake about 30 minutes for 4 small loaves;
about 45 minutes for 2 loaves;
or about 50 minutes for one huge challah.
My oven bakes a little unevenly so I spin them 180 degrees halfway through and also switch their positions with respect to the lower and upper racks.
Shanah tovah u'metukah. May you have a sweet new year. Maybe 5770 is the year I really do get a cape.