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Sweet Orange and Almond Challah
Plus: Tips for challah success!
Whenever someone asks me what my favorite Jewish food holiday is, I always say whichever holiday is coming up next. They each have their special charms! They each have their unbeatable food traditions! How could I possibly choose?
So right now, I can unequivocally say that Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish food holiday. And at the top of my menu is challah - because all challah is special, but the challah served for the Jewish New Year is really something else.
I have such sweet memories of the challah spirals my mom would bring home from the supermarket bakery for Rosh Hashanah every year. They were rich and eggy, and always came studded with raisins to symbolize wishes for sweetness in the year ahead. I would take my time plucking the jammy jewels from the bread’s squishy depths so I could enjoy them first.
Challah’s Many Forms
Rosh Hashanah challah makes a perfect canvas for a baker to express their hopes for the coming year. Instead of the typical braided loaves eaten on Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah challah is typically wound into a spiral or braided into a plump circle. The round shape symbolizes continuity and wholeness for the year, and evokes the shape of a crown (keter), in a nod to the idea that God is akin to royalty. Spiral shaped challah also holds kabbalistic resonance, particularly the notion of rising upwards towards heaven.
But not all Rosh Hashanah challah is round! Throughout the globe, Jewish communities form their challah dough into a number of different shapes - both for the New Year, and throughout the high holiday season. In her lovely NPR piece on the subject, Deena Prichep writes how some Moroccan Jewish communities form challah into swans, gazelles, or lions - an edible menagerie of strength and beauty. Other communities shape challah to look like pomegranates, which symbolize abundance.
In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks writes, “Ukrainian Jews developed the custom of shaping challahs for the meal before the Yom Kippur fast into images of ascension: birds, symbolizing that all sins should fly away…or ladders, reminiscent of Jacob’s dream.” Since birds are a traditional symbol of mercy, bird-shaped challah is fitting for a spiritually-charged season of divine judgement.
Tradition…Just A Little Sweeter
In recent years, professional and home bakers alike (as evidenced on Instagram) have truly gone all out with their challah creativity - finding ways to add sweetness and seasonality to their spirals. There’s apple and honey challah, pumpkin apple challah (that one is mine, from Modern Jewish Cooking!), fig and olive oil challah, chocolate chip and halva challah, pomegranate glazed challah…and that is just the beginning.
The most successful of these experiments, I think, are the ones that bring a new flavor profile to the table, but remain firmly in the challah camp (as opposed to straying too far into cake or babka territory.) This Sweet Orange and Almond Challah aims to do just that.
The challah itself is fairly traditional - your bubbe would definitely recognize it! But the plush spiral is mixed with almond extract and orange zest for a hint of sweet and floral flavor. A shower of sliced almonds and a shimmery sprinkle of sugar before baking dresses it up just enough to stand out on your Rosh Hashanah table, without going over the top.
For anyone thinking about swapping the water in the recipe for orange juice to up the citrus flavor (I know you’re out there!), please stick to water. I tried it both ways and found that the dough made with orange juice rose less well (possibly because of the added sugars in the juice inhibiting the yeast) and led to a denser loaf. I love the delicate orange flavor as is, but if you want something stronger, up the amount of zest or add a few drops of orange extract instead.
Wishing you and yours a sweet year ahead!
Sweet Orange and Almond Challah
Makes 2 spiral loaves
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/4 cups (296 ml) warm water (about 110°F)
5 to 5 1/2 cups (700 - 770 g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup (120 ml) neutral vegetable oil, plus more for the bowl
3 large eggs, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
2 teaspoons grated orange zest (from 2 large oranges)
Sliced almonds, for topping
Stir together the yeast, a pinch of the sugar, and the warm water in a large bowl and let sit until foaming, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together 5 cups (700g) of the flour, the remaining 1/2 cup (100g) of the sugar, and the salt in a medium bowl.
Add the oil, 2 of the eggs, the almond extract, and orange zest to the yeast mixture and whisk to combine. Add the flour mixture in two stages, stirring after each until the dough begins to form.
Tip the dough onto a flat work surface and knead, adding up to 1/2 cup (70 g) additional flour, a little at a time as needed, until the dough is smooth, elastic, and slightly sticky, about 10 minutes. (You might not need all of the flour). Grease the bottom of the large bowl with about 1 teaspoon of oil, add the dough, and flip to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a large plate (or plastic wrap, but I try to avoid it) and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, and set aside.
Gently deflate the dough and divide it into two equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time on a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large rectangle. Starting at one of the long edges, tightly roll the dough in on itself, like a jelly roll. Continue rolling and stretching until you have an approximately 20-inch rope, then spiral the rope into a circle and place it on the baking sheet, tucking the end underneath. Repeat with the remaining dough. Loosely cover the spirals with a clean dish towel and let rise until puffed, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F, and beat the remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush the loaves with a layer of the egg wash (you will not use all of it), then sprinkle generously with sliced almonds and sugar. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool before slicing.
Tips for Challah Success
There is only one true “make or break” moment when baking challah: proofing the yeast. Your yeast and water mixture should look like a mad scientist’s potion (it’s alive!) before you add anything else. If it doesn’t bubble - because the yeast is expired, or the water was too hot etc. - start over. Adding a pinch of sugar helps get things moving.
Don’t rush the rise. Give your challah the time it needs to really double in size (on warm/humid days, that might be 1 1/2 hours, on cold days it could be 3!) The second rise (after shaping) is also crucial to achieving the texture and you desire!
Role out your ropes. Whether you are making a 3-strand, 6-strand, or spiral challah, rolling out the dough with a rolling pin, and then rolling it up to make your ropes will give you a smoother texture. It isn’t 100% necessary to do this, but it gives everything a more finished and professional look.
Use a digital thermometer to avoid over baking. When ready, the internal temperature of your challah loaf should be 195°F.
Reheat in the microwave, not the oven! This might be controversial, but I stand by it. Reheating challah in the oven warms it up, but also tends to dry it out. Instead, I stick the loaf (ideally thawed, but straight from the freezer works in a pinch) in the microwave and give it 30 second bursts until it is warmed through and its “squish-factor” has returned.