I have never met a challah I did not like. There is simply something magical about the puffed, egg-enriched loaves that sit at the center of many Jewish holiday meals and that make an extravagant base for French toast. And yet as a kid, I would count down the days to Rosh Hashanah when my mom would bring home challah baked specially for the holiday.
Instead of the typical braided loaves, the challah we ate on Rosh Hashanah (also called the Jewish New Year) came coiled into a chubby spiral to symbolize the year’s cyclical nature. And instead of the usual dusting of sesame or poppy seeds on top, it was studded through with plump, jammy raisins that symbolized our hopes for a sweet year ahead. At dinner, we would tear off hunks of the tender bread and drizzle them with ribbons of golden honey.
As an adult, Rosh Hashanah remains my favorite challah holiday. Occasionally when nostalgia strikes, I will head to a bakery to purchase a loaf like the ones my mom used to buy. But whenever possible, I make my own. This version, which I developed with the fall season in mind, replaces the raisins with an autumnal layer of apple butter and finely chopped apple. Slicing into the loaf reveals swirls of sweetness and a moist, almost cake-like crumb that takes holiday tradition to delicious new heights.
Apple Butter Challah
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
1 1/4 cups warm water (about 110°F)
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
4 large eggs, divided
1/4 cup honey
2/3 cup apple butter, divided
1 small apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped, divided
Stir together the yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and the water in a medium bowl. Let sit until foaming, 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, stir together the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, flour, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
Add the vegetable oil, 3 of the eggs, and the honey to the yeast mixture and whisk to combine. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the wet mixture. Gently stir until the dough begins to form, then turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead well, adding more flour a little at a time as necessary, until a supple dough forms, 10 to 12 minutes. (I typically add about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of flour while kneading, depending on humidity.)
Rub about 1 teaspoon of oil around the bottom of a large bowl, add the dough and turn to coat; cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let sit in a warm place until nearly doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Grease two 9-inch round cake pans; set aside. Gently punch down the dough and divide in half. Working with 1 piece of the dough (and keeping the other covered so it does not dry out), roll it into a large rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Spread 1/3 cup of the apple butter evenly over the top, and sprinkle with half of the chopped apple.
Starting at one of the long ends, tightly roll the dough in on itself, like a jelly roll. Pinch the ends to seal and gently stretch into a 24-inch rope; coil rope into a circle and place into one of the prepared pans. Repeat process with second piece of dough, remaining 1/3 cup of apple butter, and remaining apple.
Whisk the remaining 1 egg in a small bowl and brush the challahs with one coat of egg wash. (Put remaining egg wash in the fridge.) Let rise for another 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375°F.
Uncover the challah and brush with a second coat of egg wash. Bake until deeply browned and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. (An instant read thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf should register 195°F.) Remove from oven and let sit 15 minutes. Carefully remove from the pans and let cool on a wire rack.
(Images: Leah Koenig)