A few months back I read The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan and knew that I would post about it for Rosh Hashanah because there's a challah-making scene and I fucking love making challah. For those of you not in the know, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year and among the traditional foods we eat is a round challah with raisins. And last week was Rosh Hashanah so here we go! L'shana Tovah and may 5782 treat us all more kindly than 5781. Celebrate with some traditional Rosh Hashanah foods, like challah, apples dipped in honey, and anything sweet because we eat sweets for a sweet new year.
So go eat some sweets.
You deserve it.
Also, read The Intimacy Experiment. It is charming.
A rabbi and a porn star walk into a bar...
No seriously, there is a scene with a rabbi and a porn star in a bar and if that doesn't make you want to read this book, you and I should probably not be friends.
I like these characters much more than I expected to, as I had met Naomi in the previous book and, to be perfectly honest, I did not expect to like her as much as I did here. I didn't expect to love this book as much as I did. But I did. I loved Ethan. He was just delightful. I love his whole attitude. I love his awkward dinner with his family and I love him having Naomi teach me about modern intimacy and dating through a Jewish lens to try and lure young adults to the temple. I would sign up for that and I don't think I've been to temple since I was a teenager. It's nuts in the best way.
I've read a few books recently in which there were Jewish characters that were introduced explicitly as Jewish but it just seems like a way to other the character without engaging in what being Jewish means to them or their relationships- in particular there are three books in which British princes get involved with Jewish men and only one of these books seemed to engage with the complications that might entail in any meaningful way (but that is part of a longer rant for another day).
Unlike those books, Rosie Danan really dug into it with The Intimacy Experiment. Questions of Jewish identity are front and center. There's the stuffy board at Ethan's temple, Ethan's relationship with his family, all the people being surprised that Naomi is Jewish, and the way that Naomi finds her way back to her own sense of Jewishness, not in a particularly preachy or religious way but as part of her character development and her way of engaging with her own past and sense of self. It's a very reform Jewish kind of thing, and that's the exact kind of Jewish I am and so it really just hit home for me in a really lovely way. It's just really well done.
And part of the book involves Naomi trying to find Ethan an appropriate Jewish girlfriend (ie. not a former porn star), so she goes to scope out the young women at another temple by taking a class there where she learns to bake challah.
So, let's talk challah.
It is not only a delicious bread that makes for very easy puns, but it's easy to bake and infinitely adaptable (see Smitten Kitchen for some really fun variations, or try your own!).
I love baking challah. It is hands down, no question, without a doubt, my favorite bread to bake. This may or may not relate to it being the first bread I ever successfully baked. It may or may not be because challah is easy to make and delicious and makes the world's best French toast. It's also just a really lovely dough, and you don't have to deal with weird shaping or lames like sourdough... you just braid it. Which some people find scary or complicated, but as a girl who grew up looking like Wednesday Addams, braiding is something I'm *very* comfortable with.
Speaking of childhood... when I started baking challah I was really disappointed that it looked so much like bread and not the neon yellow stuff we got at temple, so I set about trying to make a REALLY yellow challah. As friends and family suggested, the recipe for the Hebrew-school-challah probably included yellow food dye, but I rejected this option. I swapped eggs for egg yolks, swapped veggie oil with butter and/or olive oil... and it was yellower but not yellow enough. So I tried saffron, and I tried turmeric, and they didn't taste like childhood challah, but I found I quite liked the saffron challah with golden raisins so that became my Rosh Hashanah recipe because saffron always feels like a special occasion kind of spice.
This is my adaptation of a half-recipe of Smitten Kitchen's take on Joan Nathan's take on a traditional challah- two resources with whom you cannot really go wrong if you're looking for Jewish recipes. I've done this recipe by weight, volume, and a combination thereof and I have to say it's worked fine regardless so I'm going with volume because it's easier. If you're really into weight, you can check out the Smitten Kitchen recipe I adapted from here, but I cut everything in half, added saffron, and doubled the raisins.
Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising time
- 3/4 packet active dry yeast (6.5 grams)
- 1/2 tbs sugar
- A pinch or two of saffron strands (how much do you want to indulge? One pinch is VERY subtlety saffrony, so I say go big or go home)
- 2/3 cups lukewarm water
- 1/4 cup good olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl (I made this at my parents' house and they only had a very light, flavorless olive oil. I like something much darker which helps with both the color and flavor)
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 c honey
- 1/2 tbs kosher salt
- 4-4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
- 1 large egg
- In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tbs sugar in water; set aside for 5 minutes until a bit foamy.
- Crumble the saffron strands between your fingers as you add them to the yeasty water and let sit another 2-3 minutes.
- Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, with honey and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.
- Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful not to over-mix if you do)
- Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.
- Let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off.
- Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
- Knead half the the raisins into the dough.
- Divide the dough into three equal pieces. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Slightly flatten it, spread out put a quarter of the remaining raisins, and seal up as a roll. Poke in any raisins that poke out (this is not technically necessary, but they burn on the outside and I prefer my raisins unburnt.) Repeat.
- Braid the dough. You can do a traditional braid (see the note below), but I went for a round, which is traditional for Rosh Hashanah. The Smitten Kitchen instructions have you do this and then move the loaf onto a greased cookie sheet. I instead use a silicone mat and braid it directly on the mat rather than having to move it later.
- Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board.
- Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. (I forgot to do this one)
- Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move the leg to their right — i.e., jumping it. Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left.
- If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope.
- Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round.
- Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze bread (if not baking immediately) or let rise another 1 hour.
- If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
- Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.
NOTE: Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, for more deeply-developed flavor and/or to make your timing work better. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step. Challah also freezes very well (see notes about freezing in the instructions).
Traditional Braid- A traditional challah would follow a traditional braid. Feel free to do whichever you choose. The traditional braid works better if you want to make sandwiches (or French Toast!) but the round is pretty and traditional this time of year.
- Place the 3 in a row, parallel to one another.
- Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over middle strand.
- Then take the left strand and move it over the middle strand.
- Continue this until all strands are braided. Tuck ends underneath.
(No pics cuz it didn't happen.)
Enjoy with some apples and honey and, if you're me and my parents, cocktails.
It is also traditional, at least in my family, not to slice the challah on Rosh Hashanah. We just rip into it. which is kind of weird and a little annoying when you have to even it out to make french toast the next morning, but you know, traditions are traditions.
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