The usual braided bread gives way to domed crowns ofgolden dough, studded with raisins

By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor

I was the kind of kid who rushed out to buy round corn chips andorange Gatorade and square-pan pizzas. Any food with the bold word”NEW!” on the label sang to me. I wasn’t dumb. I knew thatmanufacturers didn’t bother to improve, or even change, the taste ortexture of these products. They just saw a tweak in the color orshape as a marketing ploy, a sucker’s bait. And time after time, Ihappily bit.

At first glance, the round challahs of the High Holidays mightseem to be no more than the ritualized version of a GeneralMills-like strategy. How could a bread that is braided 11 months ofthe year suddenly taste different the month it is made round? Eggsare eggs, flour is flour, yeast is yeast, etc., right? But, somehow,the challahs of the High Holidays — domed crowns of golden dough,studded with raisins, sitting atop a holiday table like a princess’pillow — do taste different.

I look forward to them each year, and my heart leaps at the rowsof them that begin to appear in bakeries and kosher marts this timeof year.

The usual braided challah shape is certainly noble enough.Scholars trace its origin back to a time when the Gentile women ofNorthern Europe offered locks of their braided hair to the Teutonicgoddess Berchta. Eventually, the hair offerings were replaced bybraided loaves. Perhaps not coincidentally — no one knows suchthings for sure — Northern European Jews made a potato challahcalled berches.

Over the years, Jews invested their braided bread with symbolismof its own. The 12 humps that result from braiding two loaves ofbread are said to represent the 12 loaves of show bread (lehemhapanim) in the Temple.

The round challah of the New Year carried its own weight ofextra-alimentary meaning. Its shape is symbolic of a well-rounded andfull year. Its numerous raisins symbolize a year of plenty. Its tingeof sweetness symbolizes…sweetness. The round challah doesn’texactly strain our skills of deconstruction: It wears its symbolismon its broad, shiny surface.

If you’ve ever made regular challah, or bread, you will likewisehave no problem making it round. The recipe below, from Faye Levy’s”International Jewish Cookbook,” gives good, clear instructions.Levy’s challah recipe uses the traditional eggs. My own uses pumpkin.Those convinced that egg yolks pose health risks equal to, say,strychnine or cigarettes, will appreciate that the pumpkin challah ischolesterol-free. The pumpkin ensures that even without eggs, thebread will turn out moist, rich and subtly colored.

The Jews of Turkey make a similar holiday bread, pan de calabaza,scented with ginger and cardamom.

Of course, you can use both recipes the rest of year to make yourchallah in braids. Or you can divide the dough up in loaf pans. Butwhen Rosh Hashanah rolls around, see if you can’t resist the changeto the circular loaf. It is the time of year we’re allowed to change,to become sweeter and more whole. What a simple way to remindourselves.

Pumpkin Challah

2 packages dry yeast

1/2 cup light-brown sugar

2 cups warm water

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons salt

1 can pumpkin purée, canned or fresh*

6 to 7 cups unbleached white flour

1 egg, lightly beaten

1) In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in warm water.

2) Add the oil, salt and pumpkin and 2 cups of flour. Beatvigorously a few minutes. Add additional flour, up to 6 cups, andblend well.

3) Knead the dough on a floured surface for about seven minutes,adding additional flour to prevent the dough from sticking.

4) Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plasticwrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled. Takes about one to1 1/2 hours.

5) Punch down and knead lightly. Divide the dough and shape intotwo round loaves. Place them on an oiled cookie sheet, or place eachin a loaf pan. Cover with a damp, lightweight towel and let riseuntil double. Takes about 45 minutes.

6) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the tops of the loaveswith beaten egg. Bake about 45 minutes, or until loaves sound hollowwhen tapped.

Variations: To make fresh pumpkin purée, a dash ofginger, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves can be added to the dough in Step2. The dough can also be shaped into rolls or braided.

Round Holiday Challah with Raisins

4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons lukewarm water

2 envelopes dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup raisins, rinsed, drained and dried

1 large egg, beaten with a pinch of salt

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

1) Sift 3 3/4 cups of flour into a large bowl. Make a well incenter and add 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Sprinkle yeast on top and addsugar. Leave for ten minutes.

2) Whisk honey with the remaining 3 tablespoons of water. Add thehoney mixture, oil, eggs and salt to the well. Mix in the flour byspoon, then by hand, until the mixture comes together as a kneadabledough.

3) Knead, adding the remaining 4 tablespoons of flour (as isnecessary), until the dough is smooth and not sticky.

4) Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover and let rise in awarm place until nearly doubled in volume. Takes one to 1 1/4 hours.

5) Remove the dough, knead lightly,