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Breaking Bread

A New Spin on an Ancient Tradition Adds Flavor to a Rosh Hashana Feast

September 21, 2003|JAN WEIMER | Jan Weimer last wrote for the magazine about plank-grilled salmon.

When Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, rolls around each autumn, I have traditionally greeted it with ambivalence. The rituals I had observed as a child no longer seemed pertinent as an adult. Kind friends included me in their family celebrations, but I felt like an outsider, like a voyeur of my own religion.

Several years ago, a neighbor asked me to contribute a salad to the holiday feast. When I scattered pomegranate seeds over my greens, I remembered the good fortune the fruit represents during these High Holy Days. A memory chord had been struck, and I began to think about rebuilding the bridge to once-cherished traditions.

The next year I offered to bake a challah, the traditional Jewish yeast bread. I retrieved my mother-in-law's tattered recipe from a drawer. "I'm making your challah and adding caramelized onions for Rosh Hashana," I told her, glad to find a way of relating. "Onions? Why would you even think of putting onions in your challah?" she retorted. "My challah doesn't have onions." Though my spin on the recipe might be unorthodox, serving challah during the High Holy Days is an ancient tradition. Bread is a biblical staple; the Scriptures' 263 references to the food include the following commandment to Moses: "When ye eat of the bread of the land, ye shall set apart a portion for a gift unto the Lord."

To honor this tribute, the Jews presented an olive-sized piece of dough to their priests from the finely milled bread they baked each Sabbath. They called this offering, or act of separation, "Challah." After the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, bakers symbolically tossed the dough into the fire as a token of sacrifice.

The bread, also named challah, assumed its typical long-braid shape in 15th century Europe. On Rosh Hashana, it is baked into a round to express the desire for a long life all year round. The circle is further refined according to local custom.

In Lithuania, a crown for the King of the Universe tops the loaf, while in the Ukraine it's formed into the shape of a bird flying up to heaven with our sins and prayers for salvation. A ladder pattern gilds Russian loaves, recalling Jacob's dream linking heaven and earth. "Two Jews, three opinions," says an adage. So what else is new?

Though tradition says that the bread should be broken rather than sliced, the reasons for doing so differ. Some celebrants avoid a knife because it connotes violence, while others recall Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God's behest. On holidays, the bread is passed on a plate or tossed joyfully to guests to contrast with the practice of placing it in a mourner's hand as a condolence. Regardless of how the bread is shaped or cut, it is dipped in honey before eating to ensure a sweet year ahead.

Over the years, my Rosh Hashana challah has taken many forms. Recently I smoked the onions, increasing their complex flavors. I suspect this new, showier version will not make it to the Rosh Hashana table, since I wouldn't want to upstage the brisket. But with this simple version that uses caramelized onions, I have found a deeply satisfying way of anointing a Happy New Year and breaking bread with friends.

Caramelized Onion Challah

Makes 1 large loaf

10 tablespoons rendered duck or chicken fat (schmaltz), butter or olive oil, divided

4 cups diced onions

1 package yeast

3 tablespoons sugar

2 cups warm water, divided

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 eggs, room temperature

4 cups unbleached all purpose flour

4 cups bread flour

1 egg, blended with 1 tablespoon water

Melt 2 tablespoons schmaltz in large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions, cover and cook until very soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and cook until brown, about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Cool completely.

Melt 8 tablespoons schmaltz and cool to 110 degrees. Place yeast and sugar in bowl of mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add 1/2 cup of water and mix until yeast is dissolved. Gently mix in remaining 1 1/2 cups water, salt and cooled schmaltz. Mix in eggs, 1 at a time. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides. Change to dough hook and knead 20 minutes, or until very smooth. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface; knead 1-2 minutes. Place in large oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in cool place to rise until doubled, about 2--2 1/2 hours.

Punch dough down, turn out on lightly-floured work surface and knead in onions. Return to bowl, cover with plastic, and let rise 1 hour. Transfer to large plastic bag, leaving room for dough to expand, and refrigerate overnight.

Grease 12-inch springform and line with parchment. Heavily flour work surface. Using floured hands, divide dough into 3 equal-size pieces. Flatten each piece into a rectangle and roll each into a 4-foot-long cylinder. (Alternate rolling between cylinders so dough can rest.) Pinch cylinders together at one end and braid loosely, pinching ends together. Starting at finished end, coil braid into circle, brush end with egg mixture and press into braid. Transfer to prepared pan. Cover with bath towel. Let rise until doubled and very light, about 2--2 1/2 hours.

Place baking stone in oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush bread with egg mixture. Place bread pan on top of baking stone. Bake 20 minutes. Gently remove bread from pan and transfer to stone. Brush again with egg wash. Bake 50 to 55 more minutes, or until challah is well browned. Cool on wire rack.

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