Round and round we go – Rosh Hashanah’s round raisin challah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated Sept. 9-10 this year. And challah, the signature Jewish yeast bread, takes on a special shape at Rosh Hashanah: a lovely spiral.

Easy, right? Roll challah dough into a rope, curl it into a pan, bake, and Bob’s your uncle: a beautiful round loaf.

Or not…

Since working here at King Arthur, I’ve become familiar with all kinds of  breads beyond the one that originally got me hooked: Edward Giobbi’s Pizza Caccia Nanza, via James Beard’s Beard on Bread. This garlic/rosemary/salt focaccia was my standby for years and years.

“Do you ever bake with yeast?” “Sure, I bake yeast bread all the time.” (So long as it’s focaccia.)

Then I arrived at King Arthur Flour, teamed up with Brinna Sands (author of The King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook – a new ring-binder edition of which has just been published), and had my eyes opened wide.

Limpa, bagels, pita, pumpernickel, Chinese dumplings… Brinna’s book got me started on a yeasty journey that, happily, shows no sign of ending.

Together, Brinna and I collaborated on The Baking Sheet, King Arthur’s subscription newsletter, for over 10 years. And during that time, the bread exploration expanded to include babka, brioche, and baguettes; kulich and kolaches, pulla and pumpernickel. From anadama to zeppoles, we covered the world. Including challah – though not a round Rosh Hashanah raisin challah.

Till now.

This raisin challah reinforced a lesson I learned long ago – not just about yeast bread, but about life.

You can’t always get what you want.

I wanted a beautiful, sharply spiraled loaf. And I wanted it to be easy.

But what I discovered was that the “beautiful spiral” came with a price.

Was I willing to pay that price? Read on…

Place the following in a bowl:

1/2 cup lukewarm water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5 teaspoons instant yeast

Mix to form a rough dough…

…then knead till smooth. If you’re using a stand mixer and dough hook, this will take about 7 minutes.

Ah, here we are: the moment of truth.

Here’s my first attempt at challah dough, prior to the one above. See how stiff and “gnarly” the dough is, compared to the dough in the previous picture?

I figured, well, this dough is WAY too stiff. It’ll be impossible to knead in the raisins, too hard to roll into the requisite 36” rope… But I didn’t want to waste the ingredients, so went ahead and finished the loaf.

First, the dough was so heavy, it barely budged during its first rise. Then, it was difficult (read: virtually impossible) to knead in the raisins. I ended up rolling  the dough into a long rope (also difficult; it fought me every painful inch of the way), flattening it, spreading the raisins over the dough, then pinching the rope closed all along its seam.

The raisins fell out; the seam wouldn’t stay closed.

Wow. I’ll never do THIS again, I thought to myself.

But then, the resulting loaf looked like this:

VERY pretty.

Little did I know that subsequent loaves, made from softer dough, would never again be as pretty.

So, here’s your choice: make a stiff dough (reduce the water in this recipe by 2 to 3 tablespoons), expend more effort, and get a prettier loaf. Or go with the softer, easier-to-handle dough.

Back to our soft dough-

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or 8-cup measure. Cover the bowl or cup.

Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 2 hours, or until it’s puffy. It probably won’t be doubled in bulk; in fact, as with the dough pictured above, it may not even seem to rise very much.

Here’s the easiest and most effective way I’ve found to knead raisins into dough. “Effective”? What’s the difference in the final outcome with how you do it?

Well, exposed raisins tend to burn in the oven; so when making any kind of raisin bread, I try to keep as many raisins as possible below the surface of the dough. Here’s how:

Gently deflate the dough, flatten it, and spread 1 1/2 cups of raisins across the surface.

Fold the dough over on itself…

…fold one side into the center…

…and then the other, atop the first.

Pat into a nice little packet.

Gently flatten into a log.

Cover the log, and walk away; you want the gluten to relax before you start rolling the dough into a 36” rope.

Your goal: a 36” log. 30” is OK, too, though it won’t make as nice a spiral. Again, a softer dough is easier to roll. In fact, if you’ve made a soft dough, you can simply pick the log up and transfer it from hand to hand, letting it droop down; gravity will do a lot of the work.

A stiffer dough needs to be rolled. Roll it; and when it starts fighting back, cover it and walk away for 10 minutes. Repeat. Eventually you’ll create a rope that’s close to 36”.

And yes, some of the raisins will poke out. But not nearly as many as would if you’d simple kneaded them in helter-skelter.

Coil the rope into a lightly greased 9” round cake pan. Notice how most of the raisins remained inside.

Here’s a loaf where I simply kneaded the raisins into the dough using a stand mixer; many more sticking out.

Cover the challah gently with lightly greased plastic wrap (or a shower cap), and let it rise for about 60 to 90 minutes, until it’s puffy and pretty much fills the pan.

Like this.

Near the end of the bread’s rise, preheat the oven to 375°F.

Whisk together 1 large egg and 1 tablespoon cold water. Brush the risen dough with the egg mixture.

Why brush with egg? A whole egg and water glaze makes the bread’s crust deep-brown and shiny. For a lighter brown (but still shiny) crust, use a glaze made of egg white and water. For a lighter-brown, matte crust, dispense with the glaze altogether.

Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons coarse white sparkling sugar, if desired.

Bake the bread for 20 minutes.

Tent it with foil, and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until it’s a deep, golden brown.

An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should register about 190°F. Close enough.

Remove the bread from the oven, and loosen the edges with a heatproof spatula or table knife. After a minute or so, carefully transfer it to a rack to cool.

On the left, sugar-coated bread. On the right, just a plain whole egg/water glaze.

Even a softer dough, like this one, yields a spiral; it’s just a bit rougher.

Cool the bread to lukewarm before slicing it.

This is delicious, freshly made; it does dry out fairly quickly, which makes it a perfect candidate for toast, and French toast.

If you’ve made this for Rosh Hashanah – Happy New Year!

Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Raisin Challah.

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. Beth

    Do you add more water if the dough won’t come together or more flour? I did both and I finally got a semi soft dough that came together. I had it in my kitchenaid then by hand and finally I dumped in my cuisinart with a little more water.
    PS I made one last week that was picture perfect and delicious.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re happy to hear that you got there eventually, Beth. There are a number of variables that can result in needed adjustments in the flour:liquid ratio, including the temp and humidity in your kitchen, how you measure your flour, etc. To account for these variables, you will often need to adjust one or the other (flour or liquid) to get to the desired dough consistency. If the dough’s not coming together because it’s too dry, then you’ll want to add more water, 1 Tbsp at a time, and if the dough feels too wet, then you’ll want to add more flour, also in small increments. We suggest small increments because ideally you want to avoid the back and forth additions of flour, liquid, flour, liquid, as it will ultimately throw off the balance of a recipe that includes other ingredients. Hope this helps! If you’d like to talk things through with one of our bakers directly, feel free to give us a call at 855-371-BAKE. We’d be happy to chat! Mollie@KAF

  2. Beth

    It took much longer to reach 190 degrees than the recipe said. I had to bake it in a convection oven for 55 minutes to get to 190 degrees in the center.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Beth,
      We’re surprised to hear the bake time was longer than then 35-40 minutes called for in the recipe. It’s possible that your oven was running a bit low, but regardless you did exactly the right thing by extending the baking time until it reached the proper temperature. This will ensure that the bread is baked all the way through and has just the right texture. We hope the final result was still tasty! Kye@KAF

  3. robertabooks

    Why doesn’t your recipe call for making a sponge first? (Sponge = yeast, water and about a quarter of the flour, allowed to sit for an hour or more to permit the yeast to develop). It significantly improves the texture of the bread. I often make the sponge the previous evening (not too early); the yeast seems to be OK sitting for up to 12 hours. That way, I am ready to begin the challah in the morning.

    Also, there is yet another very pretty way to make a holiday challah. Make 5 rolled strips of dough, chain them together with the last link attaching to the first one. Very pretty.

    If not a holiday challah, I also like pull-apart challahs – balls of dough put into a round pan. It is the only type of challah that “should use” a pan.

    I’ve also read about shaping challah like a bird for Rosh Hashannah. There is some nice Ukranian folk lore about it. The bread closely resembles the turban (round challah) in shape, but it is decorated with raisins for eyes and sesame seeds to simulate feathers and an almond or some other nut for a beak. There is an article (and photo) in the Forward about it. But I don’t feel entirely secure about trying it myself.

    Of course, each of these breads is pulled apart with your hand in gobs and dipped into honey for Rosh Hashanah.
    Thank you so much for posting your ideas and traditions here. ~Amy

  4. kaf-sub-horol

    I’ve been making challah for many years, in all different ways, using many different methods and ingredients, but the kind of challah I really want to make has eluded me. I really would like a pillowy, feathery-soft crumb (including raisins), topped by a light (not crunchy) crust. I guess you would call it the challah equivalent of Wonder Bread. The closest I ever came to this was by using fresh yeast, which is a pain.

    My usual result is a dense, often dry crumb with a very hard crust. It is tasty, but it doesn’t have the texture I want. The suggestions I have received, such as baking at a lower temperature, have not worked.

    Can you suggest a recipe and methodology that will make my challah dreams come true?

    Thank you.
    Hi there,
    It sounds like the denseness may be stemming from too much flour in the dough. If you are scooping your flour, you may be packing too much flour per cup, making a dry dough. If you have access to a scale, try weighing out the flour instead at 4.25 ounces per cup. If you don’t have a scale, check out our video on how to fluff and measure flour to ensure a lighter cup. I think it will a big help in getting a more tender challah. ~MaryJane

  5. Nancy in Toronto

    PJ – very informative post, thanks! Try Beard on Bread refrigerator potato bread (gives 2 loaves). Dough texture between your soft and harder versions. Long refrigerator rise (up to 18 hours) gives wonderful distribution of yeast and its bubbles, gluten development and easy rolling. Plumped & drained 1/2c raisins for each loaf, rolled in 2 long rectangles to make the rope, made spirals, all raisins hidden & protected from oven heat. The mashed potato adds moisture and helps make a good crumb.

    Thanks for the advice, Nancy – I’ll check out my old friend “Beard on Bread” for that recipe next time I make challah. I do like potatoes in bread; as you say, the texture they give is wonderful. And a longer, slower rise definitely enhances the flavor. PJH

  6. me

    another method for the spiral it is to divide the dough in thirds and braid it and put the long skinny braid into a spiral in the pan.

  7. lauriemiok

    I substituted 1 cup white whole wheat, used my machine to mix the dough & go through the first rise, skipped the sugar topping. This is a delicious, easy challah, almost coffee cake-like! Thanks for the recipe!


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