When you want fall colors and tantalizing spice mixes for your High Holiday table, prepare these loaves from Ethiopian, North African, and Sephardic traditions. As we celebrate the creation of the world at Rosh HaShanah and consider our place in the cosmos, these expose our palates to the customs of worldwide Jewish communities. The recipes for these sweet rounds are somewhat obscure, though pumpkin challah has appeared in a few cookbooks. Laden with honey, pumpkin, or orange, these challah loaves don’t even need braiding. Plus, they make lovely gifts.
Ethiopia: Spiced Honey Bread or Yemarina Yewotet Dabo (dairy)
Mix honey into this delicious bread and drench the slices with honey, too. Initially baked in a clay-covered pot lined with banana leaves over embers, this dabo bread is enriched with butter and milk as reflected in its Amharic name: yemar is honey; yewotet is milk; dabo is bread. Some Ethiopian beliefs suggest that bee honey was one of the many gifts that the Queen of Sheba may have brought to King Solomon.
This focus on honey is not surprising given that Ethiopia is the among the largest producers of honey in the world. One of the most valued is a white honey derived from sage plants in the region of Tigray. Ethiopian honey manifests regional subtleties due to local biodiversity. Not only is honey used in baking, it forms the basis of the nation’s fermented honey drink, tej, and its honey water, called briz.
Pumpkin Challah or Pan de Calabaza (pareve)
Pumpkin is a popular ingredient in Sephardic dishes, according to food writer Emily Paster. Leah Koenig, author of the newly released book, “The Jewish Cookbook,” argues that Jews “helped normalize” New World foods such as pumpkin that had been unfamiliar to the European menus. In his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” Gil Marks notes that in Italy, pumpkin came to be associated with Jews. Pumpkin made early appearances in Mediterranean foods via Sephardim in Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Libya, Morocco, India, and Bukhara. Award-winning chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein suggests that Sephardim may have embraced pumpkin because they thought that its texture resembles meat and it could be used for both dairy and meat meals.
Pumpkin also had seasonal appeal at the High Holidays. As Gilda Angel, an expert in Sephardic foods, notes, “Food made with pumpkin is served to express the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength.” In addition, one Hebrew word for pumpkin or squash, qara, provides the pun for “tear or rip,” that any evil decree of the new year should be torn up. The word also sounds like the Hebrew for “called out.” That is, good deeds will be called out and recognized as in “yikaru lefanekha z’khuyoteinu” — may our good deeds be called out before God at the time of judgment. Since a pumpkin contains many seeds, it had also come to symbolize fruitfulness and fertility.
North Africa: Orange-flavored Boulou (pareve)
Throughout the Hebrew month of the High Holidays known as Tishrei, Jews from North Africa have enjoyed this orange-scented boulou bread. Libyan Jews have made it with yeast and Tunisian Jews have made it with baking powder. Little is known about it outside of those communities; Gil Marks does not even mention it in his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” Though sadly overlooked, boulou is a citrusy and colorful addition to the fall holiday menu.
Oranges, native to China, have been known in North Africa since around the 13th century. They are available throughout the year there, yet primarily in season from October through June.
The venerable Jewish population of Libya, having lived there since the third century, now mostly resides in Israel and in North America. We can note their distinguished past through this fragrant bread.
5780 brings the opportunity to reclaim these diverse, fall-infused baked goods from legendary and resilient Jewish communities. They will taste amazing alongside the perhaps more familiar, raisin-studded, round Ashkenazi challah.
Pan de Calabaza: Pumpkin Challah
Prep time: 30 minutes
Rising time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Baking time: 45 minutes
Yield: 2 loaves and 12 rolls or 3 loaves
Adapted from: “Sephardic Holiday Cooking” by Gilda Angel
2 packages active dry yeast or 4 ½ teaspoons of active dry yeast
½ cup sugar
2 cups warm water (approximately 110º F)
½ tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ tsps. ground cardamom
2 tsps. salt
½ cup vegetable oil, plus some for the rising bowl
2 eggs, lightly beaten + 1 egg for wash, lightly beaten
1 cup canned cooked pumpkin, sometimes called puree
(not pie filling)
8 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds for topping
1) In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in water. Let it foam for 10 minutes.
2) Mix in ginger, cardamom, salt, oil, 2 eggs, and pumpkin. Blend in flour, 2 cups at a time, mixing well after each addition.
3) On lightly floured surface or on a plastic mat, knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Re-flour surface if dough is too sticky.
4) Place the ball of dough into a large, oiled bowl and turn it to be coated in oil. Place the bowl into a plastic bag and allow to rise in warm, draft-free space until doubled, about one hour.
5) Gently deflate the dough and divide it into thirds. Again on lightly floured surface or plastic mat, form 2 loaves and 12 rolls (keeping the dough not being shaped covered in the bag). Use lightly greased or parchment paperlined 9x5x3 loaf pans for rectangular shape or round cake pans for round loaves. Use greased/lined cookie sheet for the rolls or place rounds into greased/lined muffin pan for more uniformity.
6) Cover with bag and let rise in warm, draft-free space until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. After 30 minutes pre-heat the oven to 375º F.
7) When the rise is complete, brush the tops of the loaves/rolls with beaten egg. Sprinkle all with sesame seeds. Place into the oven. After about 15 minutes remove all, re-brush the expanded portions of the dough, and replace in oven, switching the placement of the pans to evenly brown.
8) Bake the rolls for about 5 more minutes and remove from the oven to a cooling rack.
9) Bake the loaves an additional 25 minutes (total of 45 minutes), or until golden brown. If they seem to be browning too quickly, cover with aluminum foil. Tap bottom for hollow sound or check internal temperature; they are done at 190º F.
10) Turn out onto rack to cool completely.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (second edition, Jewish Lights). She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, now available to travel to your community. Most recently she has launched the #chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebratory breads. For additional challah recipes mentioned above, visit jwfoodandwine.com.