Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is generally devoid of the kind of hand-wringing, resolution-making, self-improvement binges that characterize its January 1st counterpart — after all, that’s Yom Kippur’s job. And yet, I find myself marking calendars with projects, trying to make more time for exercise, and thinking about the kind of work I want to achieve in the coming months and years. What is it about the turn in the season that causes this introspection? Summer felt long and carefree; now it feels like time to get down to work.
One of the things I’m trying to work on is learning how to make things a little easier on myself. This challah is a perfect example. When I’d first conceived of making it, my plan was to cook my own apple butter, and candy the walnuts with sage before adding them to the loaf. Fate intervened when I found a jar of apple butter ready-made from last season in our cupboards — well, half-intervened; I still made the sage-candied walnuts. But the sage flavour never really emerged, and when the nuts were baked into the loaf, they softened back up and their caramel coating was just absorbed by the dough, and the whole thing ended up just not being worth it.
The recipe I share now was shaped by those lessons learned. Store-bought apple butter is the name of the game, and the walnuts are simply chopped and toasted. The challah is sweetened with honey as a nod to the tradition of eating apples and honey together in the new year, and I love the deep flavour that the apple butter imparts. But the truth is, you could make it even easier by forgoing these things, if you were short on time or energy.
After all, the thing that truly makes challah gorgeous is neither the fillings, nor the braid: it’s the smell in your house as it bakes in the oven, and it’s the pull from the bread as you tear apart a piece and pass the loaf on to share with those gathered at your table, and the pride that fills you for having turned a few humble ingredients into something quite magical.
A sweet, round, braided loaf that's a twist on the classic 'apples and honey' theme for the Jewish new year. Recipe adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet/7g) active dry yeast
1/3 cup + 1 tsp honey
2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (+more for the bowl)
2 eggs + 1 egg for the wash
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups all-purpose flour*
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup apple butter
coarse sugar + flaked salt for finishing
In a large bowl (or stand mixer), whisk the yeast together with warm water (which should feel warm but not hot on your wrist), and the 1 tsp of honey. Allow to rest a few minutes, until foamy. Then add the remaining honey, olive oil, 2 eggs, and salt, and whisk until incorporated. Add the flour and stir until the dough begins to come together. Transfer to a floured counter and knead for 5-10 minutes (or 5-8 minutes in a stand mixer on low with the dough hook), until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Coat your mixing bowl in a thin layer of oil and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with a large pot lid (or cling wrap), and allow to rise in a warm spot for 1 hour.
In the meantime, heat the oven to 350F and toast the walnut pieces for 8-10 minutes or until fragrant. Remove and set aside to cool.
After the dough has risen, turn it onto a counter and slice it in half. Roll one half into the closest semblance of a rectangle that you can manage, as thin as you can get it, and spread half the apple butter over the dough. Scatter it with half the walnut pieces, then roll the dough into a long, tight log, keeping the filling inside. Gently roll and stretch the log as long as you can make it, slice it in two, and pinch the ends closed. Set your two strands aside. Repeat with the reserved dough.
Assemble your strands into a little challah hashtag! (See the images above.) Fold strands 1, 3, 5, and 7 over and to the right. Then fold strands 2,4,6, and 8 over and to the left. Pinch the tips together to form the circle. Transfer the dough to a parchment-covered baking sheet and allow to rise for another 45 minutes.
Heat the oven to 375F. Crack the remaining egg into a bowl, add a touch of milk or water, and whisk until smooth. Brush the challah all over with the egg wash, and sprinkle generously with coarse sugar and top with a couple pinches of flaked salt. Bake the challah for 35-40 minutes, rotating and re-applying the egg wash halfway through the baking time.
The loaf is ready when the crust is a deep golden-bronze and it smells like heaven. An instant-read thermometer in the centre of the loaf should be 195 degrees.
Cool and enjoy. Leftovers make excellent french toast, bostocks, bread pudding, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
*If you have bread flour on hand, sub in 1 cup for 1 cup of the all-purpose flour for an even better texture.