No food reminds me more of Mama than her challah, and no Jewish food is more wrought with symbolism. The poppy seeds recall the manna that fell from heaven, feeding the Israelites as they wandered for forty years in the desert. Mama always baked two golden loaves, to remember the double portion of manna God gave the Jews for the, Sabbath, so that they would not work on that day.
The traditional braiding of the Sabbath challah was actually adopted by Jews from their German neighbors during the Middle Ages. As they did with so many other customs, Jews living in the Diaspora absorbed traditions from the surrounding culture. The rabbis then debated the symbolic meanings of these customs, Could the braiding signify God’s plaiting Eve’s hair for her wedding to Adam? The interlocked arms of lovers? Perhaps the triple concepts of the Creation, Exodus, and Messianic Age? As Maggie Glezer, author of A Blessing of Bread, told me when I interviewed her, “Jews admired [the Germans] Sunday loaf. It looks beautiful they thought. Obviously we want our Sabbath loaf to look as beautiful. We mix our traditions With the local traditions and create new ones.”
As was the custom, Mama would always remove a little piece of dough, say a prayer, and bake it alongside the challah until it burned, a practice that harkens back to Numbers 15:1;7-21, a passage that calls for the separation of a portion of bread to be given to the priests–-which, according to Aunt Sally, was Mama’s way of showing that you don’t keep everything for yourself. During summer, when it was too hot to light the stove, Mama would bring the dough to the local bakery to be baked.
With my grandparents living right upstairs, my brother, Gary, and I never needed coaxing to run up and light the Shabbat candles with them each Friday night. From the time we arrived home from school, the aroma of baking challahs sent intoxicating drifts through every room in our house. And on Rosh Hashanah, the traditional braided loaf gave way to a majestic spiral, signifying the circle of life. Only on this holiday would Mama Hinda fold in raisins for extra sweetness. We’d tear off chunks to dip in honey and wish each other a sweet New Year.
This recipe is adapted from one that Mama dictated to my mother during her final stay in intensive care. (She also, during the same hospitalization, asked the cleaning lady for the name of the product she was using to polish the metal bed!)
- 3½ cups bread flour
- ½ cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
- 2¾ teaspoons (1 package plus 2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon plus ¼ cup sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- ¼ cup vegetable oil, plus extra for oiling the bowl
- 1½ teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt
- 1/3 cup raisins (optional)
- Vegetable oil or vegetable cooking spray, for greasing the baking sheet (or parchment paper)
- Egg wash: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water
- Poppy seeds (optional)
1. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the flour. Place the remaining flour in the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a flat paddle or a dough hook. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in ¼ cup of the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and add 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Using a fork, stir the water, yeast, and sugar together gently, keeping the mixture in the well (don’t worry if a little flour becomes incorporated). Let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes.
2. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, the ¼ cup oil, the remaining ¼ cup sugar, and the salt together with a fork. Add the egg mixture and the remaining ¼ cup warm water to the flour mixture, and beat on low speed until incorporated. Then beat on medium speed until smooth and silky, 5 to 10 minutes. The dough should feel slightly sticky and, to quote Jeffrey Nathan in Adventures in Jewish Cooking, “like a baby’s tush.” If it is too sticky, add the reserved 2 tablespoons flour (or more if necessary), 1 tablespoon at a time, and continue to mix for a few more minutes.
3. Oil a large bowl and place the ball of dough in it, turning the dough so it is oiled allover. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place until the dough has almost doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour. (Now to find a warm place: Mama Hinda used the top of her stove, but she had a pilot light. My garage on a summer’s day does the trick for me, but I have also used my oven, preheated at the lowest setting and then turned off.)
4. When the dough has almost doubled, punch it down and knead it by hand for 1 to 2 minutes, incorporating the raisins, if using.
5. For a braided challah, separate the dough into three equal portions and roll each portion out to form a strand 1¼ to 1½ inches wide and about 12 inches long (lightly flour your work surface only if necessary). Braid the strands (see Notes). For a spiral Rosh Hashanah challah, roll the dough into a single rope about 34 inches long. Beginning at one end, wind the rope from the center of the spiral outward, keeping the center slightly elevated, like a turban. Tuck the end under.
6. Lightly grease a baking sheet or, better yet, line it with parchment paper. Place the shaped dough on the prepared baking sheet, cover it with a slightly dampened cloth, and allow it to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
8. Brush the top of the loaf with the egg wash, and sprinkle it with poppy seeds, if using. Bake until the top is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers, 25 to 30 minutes.
9. Transfer the loaf to a wire rack and allow it to cool completely.
Nutritional information is based on 24 servings, but does not include optional raisins or poppy seeds.