Come sundown on Monday, it will be Rosh Hashanah, the start of the two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year, and of the two-week-long stretch known as the High Holy Days, which ends with Yom Kippur. Me, I'm mostly a baking Jew. I do challah for Friday nights, hamentaschen for Purim, latkes for Chanukkah, flourless chocolate cake and matzoh-meal muffins for Passover. But Rosh Hashanah is a lovely holiday, and it even gets me back to temple, sometimes. Determined by the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah floats around, cropping up anytime from early September to early October. In 2001, it fell just a few days after Sept. 11, and I was definitely not the only sloppily observant Jew who suddenly needed to hear the familiar liturgy. What I realized at the end, though, was that I was really there for the headliner: the blowing of the shofar, the long ram's horn that drones like a wild, Biblical bagpipe at the close of the day's services.
The sound of the shofar is a wake-up call, blowing all the past year's dust out of your head. At the same time, you don't get off scot-free. The two weeks of the High Holy Days are a time to clear debts, to make amends, to call anyone you've been behaving badly to and rub the slate clean. No Hail Marys, no priestly intercession; you have to go out and do it yourself.
But back to the baking side of things: every culture has its symbolic New Year's foods--lentils with a stuffed pig's foot in Bologna; noodles in China; hoppin' john (black-eyed or field peas with rice) down South. And where most traditions take long life and prosperity as their metaphors, the dishes of Rosh Hashanah are all about sweetness. Nothing sour, nothing bitter: New Year's foods are honey-sweet, full of fruit and warm spice. This is the year still perfect, a full glass of health and happiness. It's a rare moment of bubbly hope for a religion and culture more used to looking over its shoulder for the Cossacks coming round the corner.
New fruits--something freshly harvested in the fall, something still yet new for the season--get pride of place on the table. Here on the East Coast this means apples, just coming into season now. But I like to add pomegranates, Concord grapes, and fresh figs, a mix of autumn bounty both local and Biblical. Slices of apples are dipped in honey and eaten to ensure a sweet year, followed by chunks of round, raisin-studded challah, spread with yet more honey. I love to make a huge challah at this time of year, studded with golden raisins, with extra honey and extra eggs. The next morning, it makes the best French toast ever, French toast that will spoil you from making it with any other bread.
Last year, on a freakishly hot night in mid-September, a dozen friends sweltered in my living room, rubbing ice cubes over their necks and arms, drinking everything cold in the house and tearing a challah the size of a Thanksgiving turkey apart with their hands. Sugarkill's Moroccan chicken tagine, a bowl of couscous, a salad with roasted figs, a gingerbread-apple cake--they all got eaten. But a year later, what everyone remembers is the bread.
Honey-Glazed Challah for Rosh Hashanah
2 tsp yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/2 cup honey
1 TB salt
7-8 cups flour
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup honey, for glaze
Sprinkle yeast over water and let dissolve for a few minutes. Beat in eggs, yolks, honey, oil, and salt. Stir in several cups of flour and beat to a thick batter. Add more flour, a cup at a time, to make a medium-soft but not sticky dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and let rest 10 minutes. Knead for 8-10 minutes, until dough is smooth and stretchy. It should feel warm and pliable, like a soft stomach or a relaxed inner thigh. Turn dough back into mixing bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic bag, and let rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and knead again for another couple minutes. At this point, depending on your schedule, you can let it rise again or go straight to shaping the loaves.
Divide dough into two lumps (or you can, if so inclined, use all the dough in one massive loaf). Stretch the lumps into flattish rectangles, and sprinkle with golden raisins. Roll up into a log, and generally push and pull the dough around so the raisins get distributed. You can, of course, add the raisins back when you're putting in the flour, but kneading dough with raisins in it is a pain, as the raisins are continually popping out and needing to be shoved back in. It's like raisin whack-a-mole.
Anyway, pull the lumps or logs or whatever into two long ropes of dough. The best directions for making a round loaf that doesn't list and collapse in the oven comes from Marcy Goldman's excellent cookbook, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. "Form a rope of 18 to 24 inches, thicker at one end, tapered at the other. Take the rope of dough and with one hand, lift the narrowed end and wind the entire length around the thicker end of the strand so that the thick part becomes the middle of the challah. Tuck the tip under the coil and press it down to seal it closed." You can also cheat and form your loaf in a big round cake pan, which will help keep the shape.
Otherwise, place the loaf/loaves on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet. Drizzle with honey. Let rise again for 30 minutes. then bake in a preheated 350 oven until well-browned and hollow-sounding when you thump it. Let cool on a rack.
And you know, if you want this recipe and more for your very own, you can search out my lovely little book all about honey, available on Amazon and, if you're very lucky, in the occasional nifty gift shop or bookstore. It's called Honey: From Flower to Table, and it's full of weird bee facts and beautiful flower-and-honeybee pinup photos, not to mention the ultimate non-sucky bran muffin recipe and a cool DIY beeswax-honey lip balm.
And speaking of Jewish food, NOSH is finally open. It's run by Marc Elliot, of seafood hangout Blue Star, and promises all things deli, from pastrami and brisket to matzoh ball soup and blintzes. 214 Atlantic Ave, between Court and Smith Sts., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.