I have never met a homemade challah I didn't like. There is something undeniably cozy and inviting about warm, fresh bread on the Shabbat table. Few other tastes can rival this. On the other hand, challah's ubiquitous appeal means that it's hard to find one loaf that stands out from the crowd. Enter: pumpkin challah.

With a heady mix of pureed winter squash, cinnamon, and cardamom braided into deep, strawberry-blond loaves, pumpkin challah is at once exotic and familiar to my Ashkenazic taste buds. A rare find, indeed.

In Maggie Glezer's indispensable baking book, A Blessing of Bread, she writes that pumpkin challah--a.k.a. pan de calabaza--is a Sephardic specialty imbued with deep meaning. Like other foods made with pumpkin, it represents the hope that God will protect the Jewish people just as the pumpkin's thick shell protects the flesh inside. 

Sephardic Jews traditionally serve this bread during Rosh Hashanah, when eating auspicious, symbolic foods is especially popular. Still, it is equally delicious served on any cold autumn or winter Shabbat when the added heartiness and kick of spice can be fully appreciated. Needless to say, the leftovers make a spectacular base for challah French toast.

Pumpkin Challah

Adapted slightly from A Blessing of Bread by Maggie Glezer
Makes 2 loaves.

1 package (7g) yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
3 3/4 cups unbleached white flour (you can substitute up to 1 3/4 cup with whole wheat flour)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (homemade or canned)
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg (+ 1 egg for glaze)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Cornmeal (optional)

Sprinkle yeast into a small bowl and pour the warm water on it. Let stand for 10 minutes, then stir to dissolve.

Mix flour, cinnamon, and cardamom in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in yeast/water mixture. Using a wooden spoon, incorporate some of the flour into the water--just enough to form a soft paste. (Don't try to completely incorporate--there should be quite a bit of dry flour left at this point.) Cover bowl with a towel and leave until frothy and risen, about 20 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar, pumpkin, oil, egg, and salt. Add to the risen flour mixture and combine thoroughly. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is pliable. (If it's too wet, keep adding flour in small amounts.)

Let dough rest 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly oil the bowl, put the dough in it and re-cover with the towel. Let dough rise in a warm place until it has tripled in size, 2-3 hours. Punch down dough, knead it a bit more, and cut it into two equal pieces. Cut each of the two pieces into three equal pieces (You should have 6 total pieces at this point). Roll each piece into a straight rope. Braid three ropes together and repeat so that you end up with two braided loaves.

Sprinkle baking sheets with a little cornmeal, or line them with parchment paper. Place loaves on the sheets, cover, and let rise until doubled in size, about 40 minutes. Glaze loaves with extra beaten egg. Bake at 350° F for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.