There is never enough homemade challah in my house when Rosh Hashanah merges into Shabbat, as it does this year. So I started baking challahs in July, which means that my freezer looks like a depot of flying saucers, full of foil-wrapped round challahs to get me through seven big meals over those few days.
The round challah is unique for the high holidays. There are several explanations for it. Some say the round challah represents a crown, the exalting of G-d as royalty on Rosh Hashanah. Others said that the round challahs remind us of the cycle of the year which begins anew on Rosh Hashanah.
While we commence another year of holidays, it is up to us whether we want every experience to be the same or different in the coming year. It is our chance to reflect on whether we can reach spiritually higher.
In the introduction to the Rosh Hashanah chapter in my upcoming book, The Holiday Kosher Baker (Sterling, November 2013), I encourage people to consider baking resolutions during the High Holidays—such as starting to bake challah from scratch every week. It will enhance your Shabbat and holiday table and make your friends and family very happy.
You can personalize your challahs in different ways. For a sweet touch, add one tablespoon honey to your egg wash or lightly sprinkle your egg-washed challah with vanilla sugar or cinnamon sugar. Filling options include raisins, cranberries, chopped nuts and chocolate chips. Also try rolling strands of dough in cinnamon sugar before shaping.
There are several ways to shape round challahs, none of them too complicated, after the dough has been prepared and has risen for an hour.
Spiral: Small or medium challahs work best for this method. You can make three from my recipe. Kosher bakeries sell perfectly shaped giant round spiral challahs. I find that if I make a giant spiral, the middle puffs up and then tilts over so the challah ends up being more oval than round.
To make a spiral that works, roll the dough on your counter into a long, smooth strand. Hold one end and then pull the other end around and around the center. Once you’ve reached the end, tuck the end into the spiral. To make it less likely to tip over, I flip the challah over and press the sides down into the pan. Make sure the end is tightly tucked into the loaf.
Knot: The knot works well for any size challah, and you can make three or four from the dough in my recipe. The trick to success is that when you roll out the strand, one end should be thicker on the end than the other side. The thicker end becomes the center of the knot. You do not need to roll the strand out very long; it should be thick. Just make a loop at the shorter end and pull the thicker end through.
Braided spiral: Divide the dough from my recipe into three pieces. Roll each into a long thin strand and then braid as you would a three-braided challah, starting by pinching the strands together on one end, braiding and then pinching the ends together. When done, hold one end of the braid and spiral the other end around and tuck tightly underneath.
Pan method: You will need two 9- or 10-inch round pans. Using spray oil containing flour, spray each pan and sides, line the bottom of the pan with a circle of parchment paper and then spray the paper. Divide the dough in half. Divide each half into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball. Place one or three balls in the center of the pan and surround with the remaining balls. Cover loosely with plastic wrap to let rise. Repeat for the second challah.
Giant braided round: Divide the dough into three parts. Take one piece and divide into three pieces. Braid each piece into a long braided challah so you have three braided challahs. Place one on a parchment-covered baking sheet in the shape of a “U.”
Place another braided challah opposite in an upside-down “U” so you now have a circle. Do your best to braid the edges together by pulling a top strand under the opposite bottom strand and tuck underneath. Take the next strand and pull under the next opposite strand and so on. Tuck edges well to keep the round shape.
Take the third braided challah and spiral one end around the other, tuck the edge underneath and place in the center of the circle. It’s fine if there is some space between the outer and inner challahs; the loaves will rise and fill the gap while baking.
Final steps and baking: Let all shapes rise for 45 minutes and then glaze with reserved beaten egg mixed with water. No matter the shape, you will need to rotate the cookie sheet twice while baking, and if baking two cookie sheets at once, switch them on the racks. Tall round challahs need to be baked on a bottom rack.
Challahs bake for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the shape. Taller challahs will need more time in the oven. Watch so they do not get too brown. If they start to get too brown even after switching racks, tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil and place loosely on top of the loaves while they finish baking.