Raisin Challah Centerpiece

Following, are the directions to build an amazing centerpiece that’s made of highly glazed raisin challah bread and it’s just perfect for the center of your holiday table. I make this every Rosh Hashanah but it’s just as awesome for the universal New Year’s Day dinner or brunch. Because the centerpiece is so beautiful, I like to keep it uncut. And, because it’s so delicious, I always make a second dough to slice and serve (also with raisins) and shape that into two coiled loaves, which is the traditional shape for Rosh Hashanah. This is because, although the more usual braided (knobby) shape is mean to reflect the interwoven (and sometimes bumpy) road of life, for New Year’s, it’s a smooth knob-less shape that’s created in hopes for a happy (bump-free) year ahead.

In this recipe (down below) I’ve provided instructions for plain and savory coils of dough, along with a photo of what a baked loaf looks like after being baked with an assortment of savory toppings (I call it my “Everything” Challah) Here’s also a link for making those beautiful six-strand braided loaves, which (with or without raisins) are another magnificent addition to the table. This challah dough is not parve. If Kosher and using for a meal that contains meat, make the changes suggested in the recipe.

one 12-inch centerpiece or two coil-shaped challah loaves

Special Equipment

For the raisin dough

  • About 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, including butter for brushing
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a pinch of sugar, for the yeast
  • 1 tablespoon mild-flavored honey
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 4 extra-large eggs
  • 2 cups supple raisins (mix light and dark)
  • Up to 6 cups high-protein bread flour, including flour for dusting
  • glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water
  • Medium-ground cornmeal, as needed, for sprinkling
  • Vegetable spray, as needed (for the raisin bread centerpiece)
  • Sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)

Note

  • If wanting to prepare a Kosher (parve) challah, one that can be eaten with both meat and dairy, substitute water (or try coconut milk) for the milk and use an equal amount of non-dairy (stick) margarine for the butter or use corn oil, reducing it to 1/3 cup). 

Any time I’ve suggested a tool, a piece of equipment, or a culinary term that’s unfamiliar to you, you can go to Learn to Cook for more information.

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Dairy & Eggs
1 cup milk
4 extra-large eggs
About 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, including butter for brushing
glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water

Dry Goods
1/3 cup sugar, plus a pinch of sugar, for the yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 packages active dry yeast
Medium-ground cornmeal, as needed, for sprinkling
Up to 6 cups high-protein bread flour, including flour for dusting

Produce
2 cups supple raisins (mix light and dark)

Spices & Baking
1 tablespoon mild-flavored honey
Sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
Vegetable spray, as needed (for the raisin bread centerpiece)

To get ready to assemble the dough

Use some of the melted butter to grease the interior of an 8-quart mixing bowl. Tear off two long sheets of plastic wrap and slightly overlap them, on your counter. Brush the plastic with melted butter (this will be used to cover your bowl of dough, once assembled). Take out your pastry scraper. Submerge 4 whole eggs in a bowl of hot tap water and let them steep, for 10 minutes.

To assemble the dough and rise it twice

Heat the milk, in a 1-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, over medium low heat. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and add 8 tablespoons of melted butter (stir it first to make sure to get an adequate amount of milk solids). Stir in 1/3 cup sugar along with the honey and raisins. Let the milk cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water with a pinch of sugar and allow it to become visibly active, about 3 minutes. Add the dissolved yeast to the warm milk mixture, along with the tepid eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon, to break up the eggs, then stir in enough flour, cup by cup, to create a somewhat stiff, shaggy mass, that’s no longer easily stirred.

Using a sturdy rubber spatula, scrape the mass on to a floured surface and knead it, using a brisk push, pull and folding motion, for about 5 minutes, or until you’ve created a dough that’s smooth and elastic, adding only as much additional flour as needed, to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and work surface. At the first signs of stickiness, use your pastry scraper to cleanly remove the dough off your kneading surface. Then lightly flour both, your hands and the work surface and continue to work the dough until you are satisfied with the texture. Place the dough into the greased bowl and brush the top with more melted butter. Cover the bowl with the greased plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot, for 2 1/2 hours. Uncover the dough and punch it down, with several swift swats with the back of your hand. Turn the dough over in the bowl and knead, gently, to redistribute the yeast. Recover the bowl and let the dough rise again, for 1 hour and 30 minutes or until very light and billowy.

To shape, bake and present a challah centerpiece

First make your glaze. Use a fork to beat the egg with the yolk and water. Strain this through a small wire sieve, making it easier to apply with a pastry brush. Set the glaze aside. Brush the interior of a 12-inch nonstick spring-form pan with melted butter and sprinkle the interior with cornmeal. Tilt the pan to coat the greased surface, then tap out any excess meal. Cover the exterior of a 2-cup capacity stainless steel bowl with nonstick aluminum foil (dull or nonstick side out), tucking the edges into the bowl, so the foil fits flush with the outer surface. Spray the foil with vegetable spray and place the bowl in the center of the prepared pan, domed bottom up. Place the pan to one side of your work surface. (Alternatively, take the wrapper off of an empty 28 ounce can and wrap the outside with nonstick foil. Spray the foil and place in the center of the prepared pan, as previously directed.)

Turn the fully risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and, using a pastry scraper, divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Keep all of the pieces covered, while working with one piece at a time. One by one, shape only nine of the pieces into round buns by gathering up the sides of the dough, and pinching at the top. Do this over and over, creating a smooth taut round of dough with a pinched end, on top. Place each round, as it’s shaped, smooth side up (pinched side down) in the prepared pan, surrounding the small bowl. Leave about 1/4 inch of space in between each bun. Divide the last piece of dough into three equal pieces and roll each one into a long skinny strand. Braid the dough, like you were braiding your hair, starting at one end and finishing at the other. Pinch the loose ends together, then lift the braid and carefully elongate it (being careful not to tear it). Drape the braid around the inside of the buns, surrounding the exposed bowl, pinching the ends together, securely. The top of the foil-covered bowl should remaining exposed, in the center of the circular braid. Cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rise for 45 minutes, before baking.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Ten minutes before the end of the rise, uncover the pan and brush the exposed dough with the egg glaze. Let the pan sit, uncovered, for 10 minutes, then reapply the glaze and sprinkle the top of the dough with sesame seeds, if desired. Bake the challah centerpiece, until cooked through and deep golden, 40 to 45 minutes, covering the pan loosely, with aluminum foil (shiny side up) for the last 10 minutes, if becoming overly brown.

Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Carefully run a table knife around the edges of the pan making sure the bread is free from the sides. Open the spring-form latch and, while holding the pan in your working hand, lift the bread up, releasing the sides. Place the bread, still on the bottom disc, on the rack to cool further. When cool, run a knife under the bread, where it meets the pan’s disc andslide it off. Gently pry out the bowl, (or can) which should come out easily. If at all challenging, use a knife to cut around the bottom edge, then pull the bowl out. Place the bread on a large circular platter and insert a tiny bowl in the center, gently pushing it down, so it’s secured.

To help ring in a “sweet” New Year, fill the little bowl (the size will vary depending on the space created in the center) with honey and surround the centerpiece with either Seckel pears or lady apples. Place the platter in the center of your dressed table and, at dinner, pass an additional basked filled with sliced raisin challah, (instructions will follow) and accompany the bread with some softened salted, homemade butter and extra honey, to drizzle.

Plain Challah Variation

Keep everything the same, omitting the raisins. If making two braids or rounds, after they rise, glaze as directed and sprinkle the top with one or both with a combination of seeds (like poppy, sesame or caraway). And, or top with some reconstituted dehydrated toasted onions and garlic. Sprinkle the top lightly with salt and bake, as you would the raisin dough. To make a centerpiece, using a plain dough, use a 10-inch spring-form pan.

Savory Challah Variation

When assembling the dough, reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons, omit the honey, add 1/2 cup thinly sliced chives, 1/2 cup room temperature freshly grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese (for braids or loaves) or 1 cup cheese, when making Brie en croute. After assembling the dough, reduce the first rise to 2 hours and the second rise to 1 hour and 15 minutes. If making a Brie en croute, after the first 2 hour rise, punch the dough down, cover the bowl and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours and as long as twenty-four hours, before shaping. This dough must be chilled, if being using to encase a wheel of cheese. If using this savory version to be baked in loaf pans, it should be at room temperature. And, if making savory loaves or braids, follow the previous topping instructions, for a plain dough.

Shaping coiled loaves

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line 2 large shallow baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle the paper with cornmeal. Gather your choice of seeds, if using, and place them next to the bowl of glaze. Turn the fully risen dough out onto your lightly floured work surface and divide the dough in half, using your pastry scraper. Cover one half, while working with the other. (If not working with a double oven, refrigerate 1/2 of the dough, in it’s original bowl, covered.) Roll one half of dough into a strand about 18 inches long. (Use extra flour, only as necessary, to keep dough from sticking to your hands and work surface.) Position the dough horizontally in front of you and create a coil (like a snake that’s curled around itself) and pinch the end of the dough onto itself, securing it well. Place the coil on one of the baking sheets and cover it with a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes. (If working with a double oven, repeat this same procedure with the remaining half of dough. If not, wait until the first loaf enters the oven, to remove the second half from the refrigerator, to shape half.)

After a 20 minute rise, uncover the braid and brush the dough, all over, with the egg glaze. Let the loaf sit, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Just before baking, give the dough another coat of glaze and, if desired, sprinkle the top, decoratively, with one or more type of the seeds. Sprinkle the top lightly with salt, if desired, and bake the braid(s) at 375oF oven until golden, and the loaves feel light when lifted, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, 35 to 45 minutes. As the dough bakes, it will expand, exposing new, unglazed dough. To prevent uneven browning, check the loaves 20 minutes after they enter the oven and, working quickly, brush any whiter parts of dough with some reserved glaze. Quickly sprinkle those sections with some seeds, if using and continue to bake, until done. (Cover the top of the braids, loosely, with aluminum foil (shiny side up) if loaves begin to become overly brown before being cooked through, uncovering for the last 2 minutes of baking. (Please expect the shape of each baked loaf to be somewhat irregular; it’s part of their charm!)

To cool and serve

Let the loaves cool on wire racks before slicing and serving.

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