Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated Sept. 9-10 this year. And challah, the signature Jewish yeast bread, takes on a special shape at Rosh Hashanah: a lovely spiral.

Easy, right? Roll challah dough into a rope, curl it into a pan, bake, and Bob's your uncle: a beautiful round loaf.

Or not...

Since working here at King Arthur, I've become familiar with all kinds of  breads beyond the one that originally got me hooked: Edward Giobbi's Pizza Caccia Nanza, via James Beard's Beard on Bread. This garlic/rosemary/salt focaccia was my standby for years and years.

"Do you ever bake with yeast?" "Sure, I bake yeast bread all the time." (So long as it's focaccia.)

Then I arrived at King Arthur Flour, teamed up with Brinna Sands (author of The King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook - a new ring-binder edition of which has just been published), and had my eyes opened wide.

Limpa, bagels, pita, pumpernickel, Chinese dumplings... Brinna's book got me started on a yeasty journey that, happily, shows no sign of ending.

Together, Brinna and I collaborated on The Baking Sheet, King Arthur's subscription newsletter, for over 10 years. And during that time, the bread exploration expanded to include babka, brioche, and baguettes; kulich and kolaches, pulla and pumpernickel. From anadama to zeppoles, we covered the world. Including challah – though not a round Rosh Hashanah raisin challah.

Till now.

This raisin challah reinforced a lesson I learned long ago – not just about yeast bread, but about life.

You can't always get what you want.

I wanted a beautiful, sharply spiraled loaf. And I wanted it to be easy.

But what I discovered was that the “beautiful spiral” came with a price.

Was I willing to pay that price? Read on...

Place the following in a bowl:

1/2 cup lukewarm water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5 teaspoons instant yeast

Mix to form a rough dough...

...then knead till smooth. If you're using a stand mixer and dough hook, this will take about 7 minutes.

Ah, here we are: the moment of truth.

Here's my first attempt at challah dough, prior to the one above. See how stiff and “gnarly” the dough is, compared to the dough in the previous picture?

I figured, well, this dough is WAY too stiff. It'll be impossible to knead in the raisins, too hard to roll into the requisite 36” rope... But I didn't want to waste the ingredients, so went ahead and finished the loaf.

First, the dough was so heavy, it barely budged during its first rise. Then, it was difficult (read: virtually impossible) to knead in the raisins. I ended up rolling  the dough into a long rope (also difficult; it fought me every painful inch of the way), flattening it, spreading the raisins over the dough, then pinching the rope closed all along its seam.

The raisins fell out; the seam wouldn't stay closed.

Wow. I'll never do THIS again, I thought to myself.

But then, the resulting loaf looked like this:

VERY pretty.

Little did I know that subsequent loaves, made from softer dough, would never again be as pretty.

So, here's your choice: make a stiff dough (reduce the water in this recipe by 2 to 3 tablespoons), expend more effort, and get a prettier loaf. Or go with the softer, easier-to-handle dough.

Back to our soft dough-

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or 8-cup measure. Cover the bowl or cup.

Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 2 hours, or until it's puffy. It probably won't be doubled in bulk; in fact, as with the dough pictured above, it may not even seem to rise very much.

Here's the easiest and most effective way I've found to knead raisins into dough. “Effective”? What's the difference in the final outcome with how you do it?

Well, exposed raisins tend to burn in the oven; so when making any kind of raisin bread, I try to keep as many raisins as possible below the surface of the dough. Here's how:

Gently deflate the dough, flatten it, and spread 1 1/2 cups of raisins across the surface.

Fold the dough over on itself...

...fold one side into the center...

...and then the other, atop the first.

Pat into a nice little packet.

Gently flatten into a log.

Cover the log, and walk away; you want the gluten to relax before you start rolling the dough into a 36” rope.

Your goal: a 36” log. 30” is OK, too, though it won't make as nice a spiral. Again, a softer dough is easier to roll. In fact, if you've made a soft dough, you can simply pick the log up and transfer it from hand to hand, letting it droop down; gravity will do a lot of the work.

A stiffer dough needs to be rolled. Roll it; and when it starts fighting back, cover it and walk away for 10 minutes. Repeat. Eventually you'll create a rope that's close to 36”.

And yes, some of the raisins will poke out. But not nearly as many as would if you'd simple kneaded them in helter-skelter.

Coil the rope into a lightly greased 9” round cake pan. Notice how most of the raisins remained inside.

Here's a loaf where I simply kneaded the raisins into the dough using a stand mixer; many more sticking out.

Cover the challah gently with lightly greased plastic wrap (or a shower cap), and let it rise for about 60 to 90 minutes, until it's puffy and pretty much fills the pan.

Like this.

Near the end of the bread's rise, preheat the oven to 375°F.

Whisk together 1 large egg and 1 tablespoon cold water. Brush the risen dough with the egg mixture.

Why brush with egg? A whole egg and water glaze makes the bread's crust deep-brown and shiny. For a lighter brown (but still shiny) crust, use a glaze made of egg white and water. For a lighter-brown, matte crust, dispense with the glaze altogether.

Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons coarse white sparkling sugar, if desired.

Bake the bread for 20 minutes.

Tent it with foil, and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until it's a deep, golden brown.

An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should register about 190°F. Close enough.

Remove the bread from the oven, and loosen the edges with a heatproof spatula or table knife. After a minute or so, carefully transfer it to a rack to cool.

On the left, sugar-coated bread. On the right, just a plain whole egg/water glaze.

Even a softer dough, like this one, yields a spiral; it's just a bit rougher.

Cool the bread to lukewarm before slicing it.

This is delicious, freshly made; it does dry out fairly quickly, which makes it a perfect candidate for toast, and French toast.

If you've made this for Rosh Hashanah – Happy New Year!

Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Raisin Challah.

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

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