There is nothing like a home-baked challah. It will look great, taste delicious, and elicit much adulation from the assembled guests at your holiday dinner table. And think of the time you will gain by not waiting in line at the bakery!
Here is a recipe from which you can make three variations of the traditional round challah for the high holidays. I have always found raisin challah a bit too sweet, and have therefore preferred the plain version. But recently I discovered a new favorite, challah with dried cranberries - pretty to look at and with just the right tart-sweet taste. This recipe will make 2 large or 3 medium challot. Make all one kind, or, as I like to do, try one of each and please everybody.
A KitchenAid or other heavy-duty mixer will speed up this recipe, but you can also mix up the dough by hand or in a food processor. A second rise before forming into rounds will add extra height to the loaves, but you can certainly get away with one if time is short.
4 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 cup very warm water
2 teaspoons sugar
6 1/2 - 7 cups flour
6 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup oil
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup warm water
2 cups yellow raisins or dried cranberries, if desired
(1 cup per loaf if making 2 loaves, generous 1/2 cup per loaf if making 3 loaves)
Cornmeal or flour for dusting baking sheets
1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water for the glaze
Have all ingredients (except the egg glaze) ready and at room temperature. Dissolve the sugar in 1 cup very warm water in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface and let stand for 8 to 10 minutes. Stir to dissolve.
Using the dough hook of the KitchenAid or stirring briskly by hand, mix in the honey, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup water. Then add the oil and eggs, one at a time, and 6 cups of the flour. Knead the dough for a few minutes until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed - it will be sticky at this point.
Continue to knead, adding the remaining 1-1 1/2 cups flour as necessary to achieve a smooth and elastic dough that does not stick to the sides of the bowl or to the board.
Divide the dough into 2 or 3 portions. If using raisins or dried cranberries, add them now by pressing some into the dough, folding over, adding more, refolding, and repeating until all the fruit is incorporated and spread throughout. Round the portions into balls, place in large greased bowls, and cover with foil or a dish towel. Place the bowls in a warm place and let sit until the balls are double in bulk (about 1 - 1 1/2 hours). Punch down and, if you have time, let rise again until doubled and punch down again (45 minutes to an hour). If you are making all one type of challah, you can form one ball, let rise and punch down, and then divide the dough into 2 or 3 portions for the loaves.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place each portion of dough on a floured board and roll into a strand, 18 to 24 inches long. Make one end thicker and gradually taper it down. Sprinkle cornmeal or flour on 2 or 3 large baking sheets. Take the dough and place the thicker end in the center of the pan and wind the rest of the strand around it, tucking the end under. Cover with a towel and let rise until double in bulk (30-45 minutes). Brush with the egg glaze. Plain challot may also be sprinkled with poppy seeds or sesame seeds.
Bake each challah in the lower third of the oven. If making 3 loaves, bake each for approximately 25 minutes; for 2 loaves, bake 5-10 minutes longer. The challah should be browned and sound hollow when tapped with your fingers. Cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet and then remove to a rack to cool completely.
You may freeze the challot by wrapping tightly in plastic wrap and then either wrap again in foil or place in plastic freezer bags.
Round Challah for the New Year