This year Hanukkah starts and ends on a Friday night. This happy happenstance gives me two opportunities to create one of my favorite holiday treats — the challah hanukkiah, literally a menorah made of challah.
For the most part Jews today associate the bread eaten Friday night with the braided form in which it is most commonly found. But from both the historic and rabbinic perspective, there is nothing sacred about this shape.
From a rabbinic point of view the obligation to have bread on Friday night only requires that we have two loaves grace the table. Jews historically created those loaves in different shapes to signify different motifs — the most common being the round challah eaten at Rosh Hashana to signify the cyclical nature of the year.
Last year, for the Shabbat that fell in the middle of Hanukkah, I played around with the idea of making a theme-based challah to mark the holiday. I considered a challah dreidl, but sharp points and angles don’t hold so well in dough art. So I decided to jump right in and make my challah into a menorah.
This little bit of fun is completely kosher from a menorah and a challah perspective. And you don’t need to be a crafty Maccabee to do this — it’s hardly more difficult than your regular challah drill.
Two things to note: If you are planning to have the candles burn down completely (as it is customary to do), it is worth wrapping the portion of the candles that are in the bread in foil. If you want the candles to burn down completely before you make motzi over the challah and eat it, then you’ll need to plan for the burning time, which is no less than half and hour.
Here are your options:
1). The Eight-Candle Version (demanding some baking and artistic skill):
Make a good, reliable challah recipe. When it comes to the step for braiding, let your imagination go wild as you shape the challah dough like a menorah. Keep in mind that if it is really thick in some parts and thin in others it is more likely to bake unevenly. Also, really thin parts might not transfer that well. Finally, the dough will rise. Details and sharp angles might not be as clearly defined in the final product. If you feel like getting really creative you could decorate with chocolate chips, sprinkles or raisins. You might consider putting in pieces of foil as placeholders to make spaces in the bread for the candles. Once the bread bakes, take out the pieces of foil.
2). The Four-Candle Version (demanding some baking skill but no artistic skill):
Bake your challah as you would on a normal week, and just stick the candles into the finished project.
3). The Three-Candle Version (for those without the time, knowledge and interest in baking full on, but who like the artistic stuff — particularly good for those with children):
You can buy frozen dough and defrost it or ask you local bakery to sell you the uncooked dough. Using this prepared dough, proceed with the directions for the eight-candle version. Follow the box or bakery directions for baking.
4). The One-Candle Version (for those who know that one candle is all you need for a little light fun):
Buy a baked challah. Put candles in. Light. Enjoy.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is Director of Continuing Alumni Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion. She is a scholar of Jewish food and customs. She lives and cooks in San Francisco.