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Round challah symbolizes the cycle of life

By Andrea Pyenson
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2010

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Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashana, when Jews throughout the world will celebrate the New Year with sweet preparations of meat, chicken, and vegetables to symbolize a good year ahead. Included in the feast will be beautiful round loaves of challah, the golden egg bread that is usually braided. At the New Year, it is shaped into a circle to represent the cycle of life.

While it is a festive holiday, observed with rituals and special foods, Rosh Hashana is also the beginning of the 10-day period of self-examination that ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when families share a big meal before sundown the previous evening, then break the fast together 24 hours later. A light meal, similar to a dairy brunch, is traditional for the “break fast,’’ and usually features bagels, smoked fish, noodle puddings, cheeses, and, of course, round challah.

For years, my holiday ritual included getting to my neighborhood bakery early on the morning of the first night of Rosh Hashana to procure golden challah before I started cooking. There was always a line, but if I timed it right, not too long. I saw the same faces year after year. Some were people I knew, some I recognized. And there was always a convivial spirit.

The bakery closed a couple of years ago, throwing my routine off considerably. After struggling to come up with another bakery and another ritual, I decided to create a new one: I’m baking my own.

I auditioned a couple of recipes before settling on one from Temple Shir Tikva, in Wayland. It has been given out to kindergarten classes in the temple’s religious school for families to make together. The dough comes together quickly. It rises for 20 minutes, then you shape it, and let it rise again in the refrigerator for six to 24 hours. It is a perfect do-ahead round for Yom Kippur.

My first rounds were a bit lopsided. To avoid that, Suzanne Mermelstein, owner of Mariposa Bakery in Cambridge, recommends flattening the dough out, rolling it into a rectangle, then “jellyroll it up. Roll it to a longer rope, [working] from the middle out to the ends,’’ she says. “If one part feels thicker than the other, roll that out,’’ until the rope is uniform.

I also found help online. In a short instructional video, Karen Weisman, a Boston University graduate who teaches cooking, baking, cake decorating, and other crafts in Israel, starts out similarly to Mermelstein, but recommends rolling the rectangle into a long strand with “a fat middle and skinny ends.’’ She makes the process look easy. After watching the video a couple of times, it is.

Baking your own challah is the most satisfying project. If it is not part of your holiday ritual, this might be the year to change that.

To watch Karen Weisman shape challah, go to www.ehow.com/video_2341038_shape-round-challah-bread-loaf.html.

Andrea Pyenson can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.