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Jewish Breads Bonanza for the Holidays and Beyond

NEW YORK, Aug. 16 (JTA)--With the no-carb craze sweeping the nation, Atkins Diet adherents make sure to avoid pasta and potatoes, but when the High Holidays roll around, even purists are tempted by succulent Jewish breads.

What would Rosh Hashanah be, after all, without huge round hallahs? Or Yom Kippur without bagels to break the fast? Not to mention Bukharan bread, za'atar pita and the wide variety of breads that Sephardim adore.

Atkins converts aside, bread has historically been among the most important staples in the Jewish diet. We even eat matzah at Passover--a holiday that revolves around shunning luscious, lofty loaves.

Indeed, bread was once considered a complete meal, and until recently was the mainstay of many people's daily calorie intakes. In the Bible bread is a symbol representing food.

"Jewish law says that if bread is served, you have a meal; without it, you are having a snack," wrote Maggie Glezer in her upcoming book, A Blessing of Bread: Jewish Bread Baking Around the World (Artisan, A Division of Workman Publishing, Inc., October 2004).

Bread is central to Jewish celebrations. Ideally before each meal, and certainly before holiday meals, a blessing is recited, thanking God for bringing forth bread, and by implication all food, from the earth.

"At Rosh Hashanah, my family likes the same breads each year," says Glezer, an Atlanta mother of two children who bakes huge batches of sweet honey hallahs and freezes them. She serves some of these airy hallahs at Rosh Hashanah and the rest at Yom Kippur. But her family breaks the fast with her homemade honey cake--which Glezer considers bread.

Knowing that hallah braiding is a dying art, what inspired Glezer to write a book about baking Jewish bread?

"I'm a bread fanatic and a Jew--that's how I came to this," she says, adding that she's been seriously studying bread baking for 15 years. An American Institute of Baking-certified baker, Glezer specializes in teaching bread techniques to both amateurs and professionals. This is her second book about bread, and she writes on the subject for culinary magazines.

"A Blessing of Bread is accessible to less experienced bakers," she says.

Because Glezer empathizes with beginners relying on recipes and a picture to produce unfamiliar breads, she gives readers numerous guidelines, conveying exactly what the dough looks like at each step. Her recipes are often long, but for novices it's like having a professional baker at their side.

With over 60 recipes in her cookbook, Glezer encourages people to stray from the usual babkas, bagels, and deli-rye to try new delicacies like Turkish coffee-cake rings or Hungarian walnut sticks.

Glezer's goal was not to include every bread recipe in the Jewish repertoire--which would take two lifetimes. Her aim was to give readers a thumbnail sketch by highlighting some recipes from Sephardi, North African, Near Eastern and Ashkenazi cultures.

To assemble this impressive collection, she spoke to and baked with people from many backgrounds. She also included lively oral histories, anecdotes and passages from folk tales.

While the book features international holiday baking, Glezer has a special place in her Ashkenazi heart for sweet hallah. At Rosh Hashanah, people often drizzle honey and raisins into hallah, hoping for a sweet year. Instead of the oval-shaped, braided variety, the Rosh Hashanah hallah is spiraled to represent the cycle of life and the completeness of the world.

"Rosh Hashanah is apple season," says Glezer, explaining that while apples have been a symbol of sweetness for centuries, this treasured fruit has recently begun to appear in American hallah recipes. Calling for huge chunks of apples, Glezer's spin on this new genre produces delightfully moist results. Her step-by-step instructions yield a coffee cake or a sweet bread to serve with dinner.

"While my apple hallah can be prepared in a loaf pan or a circular cake pan, at Rosh Hashanah I prefer the cake pan for its round theme," she says.

"One of the best parts of the Holidays is Sephardic pumpkin bread," says Glezer, explaining that her recipe was inspired by one from Gilda Angel, author of Sephardic Home Cooking.

Angel explains that among Separdi Jews, pumpkin is popular at Rosh Hashanah because it expresses "the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength."

While pumpkin gives the bread an appealing color, it derives its aromatic flavor from cardamom and ginger, popular Sephardi spices. Glezer suggests either fresh or canned pumpkin.

"My favorite part of writing A Blessing of Bread was listening to bakers and others talk about their lives," she says. "Their stories are the fabric of Jewish life; their recipes the carriers of our tradition."

Hearing her rhapsodize about her favorite subject is like being with an energetic bubby who has burned her fingers in ovens a thousand times but still exudes the enthusiasm to taste the unfamiliar, learn from strangers and share amazing recipes for a never-ending basket of Jewish breads.

APPLE HALLAH

2 envelopes instant yeast
5 cups unbleached bread flour
1 cup warm water
3 large eggs
6 tbsp. vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan and dough
2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large baking apples (Braeburn preferred)

MIXING THE SLURRY: In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and 1 cup of the flour. Then whisk in the warm water until yeast slurry is smooth. Let it ferment uncovered for 10-20 minutes, or until it begins to puff up slightly.

MIXING THE DOUGH: Whisk the eggs, oil, salt and sugar into the puffed- yeast slurry. When eggs are well incorporated and the salt and sugar have dissolved, stir in the remaining 4 cups of flour all at once with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto work surface and knead it until it is smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. Soak your mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it. If the dough is too firm to easily knead, add a tablespoon or two of water. If the dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.

INITIALLY FERMENTING THE DOUGH: Place dough in clean warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let ferment for one houror until just slightly puffy.

PREPARING THE APPLES: While the dough ferments, peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Then cut each slice across into three pieces. End up with large, squarish apple chunks. Measure 4 1/2 heaping cups of the chunks. Reserve them in a covered container.

ROLLING DOUGH & ADDING APPLES: After initial ferment, sprinkle dough and work surface with flour. Pull out the dough. Cut dough in half into two equal pieces, keeping one piece covered while working with the other. Roll out the dough into a 1/8 inch-thick, 16-inch long square. Scatter 1 heaping cup of apples over the center third of dough. Fold up the bottom third to cover it. Press dough into apples to seal it around them. Scatter another heaping cup over the lower half of dough--onto the second layer of dough--and fold the top of dough over both layers to create a very stuffed letter fold. Press down on the dough to push out air pockets and to seal dough around apples. Roll dough into a bowl. Move dough in bowl so that the smooth side--without a seam--faces up. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with other piece of dough, using another bowl. Continue fermenting both doughs for about an hour, or until they have risen slightly and are very soft.

SHAPING & PROOFING DOUGH: Oil two 8-inch round cake pans. Using as much dusting flour as needed, pat each dough half into a rough round shape. Try keeping smooth side intact on top. You won't be able to deflate dough much now because of the apples. Slip dough into pans smooth side up and cover them well with plastic wrap. Let loaves proof for about 30 minutes, until they have crested their containers.

Immediately after shaping the breads, arrange an oven rack on the lower third position and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

BAKING THE LOAVES: When loaves have risen over the edge of the container and won't push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush each with a generous tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle them with a few tablespoons of sugar. Bake for 45-55 minutes total. After the first 40 minutes, switch the pans from side to side. Bake 5-15 minutes more. When loaves are well browned, remove them from oven, unmold, and cool on a rack.

PAN de CALABAZA (Sephardic pumpkin bread)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 envelope instant yeast
1/3 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
About 3 3/4 cups bread flour, divided
2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs

MIXING THE DOUGH: In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, cardamom, ginger and 3/4 cup of the flour. Whisk in warm water until yeast slurry is smooth. Ferment for 10-20 minutes, or until slurry begins to puff up slightly.

Whisk sugar, salt, oil, 1 egg and pumpkin puree into puffed yeast slurry. When mixture is well combined, stir in remaining 3 cups flour with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it onto your work surface. Knead it until well mixed, fairly smooth and firm. Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough. If dough is too firm, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. Dough should be light orange, firm, easy to knead and not at all sticky.

FERMENTING THE DOUGH: When dough is fully kneaded, set it in the cleaned, warmed bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough ferment about 2-3 hours, until it has tripled in size.

SHAPING THE BREADS: Oil 2 baking sheets. Divide the dough into 2 loaves of equal size, placing each on a baking sheet. Tent them well with plastic wrap.

PROOFING THE BREADS: Let loaves proof 60-90 minutes, until triple in size.

Thirty minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the upper third position. Remove racks above it. If both baking sheets won't fit on one rack, place a rack below it, leaving room for bread to rise. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt to use as a glaze.

BAKING THE BREADS: When loaves have tripled and don't push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush them with egg glaze. Bake loaves on individual baking sheets for 35-40 minutes. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the pans from top to bottom or from front to back so that breads brown evenly. Bake 15-20 minutes more. When loaves are very well browned, remove them from oven and cool on a rack.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Yiddish for "grandmother."
Linda Morel

Linda Morel is a freelance writer based in New York.

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