The pumpkin zeitgeist definitely skews sweet over savory. Your pumpkin lattes, pies, cakes, cookies, breakfast buns, overnight oats, and so on and so forth--all pumpkin-pie-spiced and definitively sweet. Yet of the many things I adore about orange vegetables in general and pumpkins in particular is their versatility. Whether you're a winter squash, or a carrot, or a sweet potato, you're welcome at dinner and dessert alike. Most pumpkin challah recipes tend to go with the zeitgeist, and around here, we're all in favor of that, especially if you snag some Trader Joe's maple butter. That being said, a saltier, more savory pumpkin challah was what I was after here, redolent with cold-weather-tolerant garden herbs (parsley-sage-rosemary-and-thyme, sing it).
In baked goods, including this challah, pumpkin comes through as a subtle flavor. Where it really makes its mark is in the luxurious texture it lends the bread, making it even more tender and feathery than regular challah. To ratchet up the pumpkin quality, I added one of my stealth favorite spice blends: poultry seasoning. Usually purchased by Americans for the annual Thanksgiving stuffing-making and then summarily forgotten, I'm kind of on a mission to make poultry seasoning more appreciated. It's just an overall wonderful spice mix, savory, wintery, delicious. I only use a little in the challah, to add a subtle bit of depth.
How is pumpkin challah different from other challahs?
Pumpkin challahs, be they spiced or savory, are made following basically the same process as any challah, with a few differences. First, because the pumpkin adds moisture, the dough is slightly wetter than regular challah dough and potentially a bit more difficult to work with, although it shouldn't be too sticky and troublesome (if it is, you need to add a little more flour; it should still "climb the hook" like in the photo above). My recipe adjusts for this by reducing the amount of eggs. Relatedly, you want to give your dough a little longer to rise because it has more heavy enrichments in it. Last thing: pumpkin challah bakes a little more slowly, which is why the instructions below have you raise the oven temperature during the last ten minutes of baking.
You can braid your pumpkin challah just like you would any other challah dough, though I recommend a four-strand braid because it is flatter and allows the loaf to bake more evenly. Instructions for the four-strand braid are included below, and let me just say: lots of online instructions make it so much harder than it needs to be. It's basic weaving, over-under-over, prepeat until bam, done.
Shaping a four-strand braid
A four-strand braid starts off just like a regular three-strand, except, of course, you roll four strands. Lay them one next to the other and pinch them together at one end (like the photo on the left, above).
You'll be working from right to left: that is, starting with the strand farthest to your right. Pick it up and gently weave it under the remaining three strands as follows: over, under, over. Your challah should now look like the middle photo above.
Now, you'll continue to work with the new strand that's on your farthest right. Pick up the strand that is now the farthest (you don't have to bother to keep track, because you're always just going to be picking up and weaving the strand on the farthest right). Once again, weave: over, under, over.
Keep going until you have no more left to braid. Tuck both ends under, firmly. That's it, leave your challah to rise while you heat up the oven, about half an hour, then brush it with egg wash and bake.
Savory Pumpkin Challah (parve)
- Stand mixer fitted with dough hook
- 1 egg, for egg wash - beaten with 1 tsp water
- minced tarragon, sage, thyme, or a mix - for topping
Mix the dough:
- Combine the water and maple syrup (or honey) in a 2-cup glass measuring cup or a small bowl. Whisk together, then add the yeast and whisk again. Set aside until foamy, 7-10 minutes.
- In your stand mixer bowl, measure out the flour. Add the yeast mixture, then the pumpkin purée, eggs, oil, salt, and poultry spice, if using. Begin mixing with dough hook on the lowest speed. Continue mixing until the dough comes together, 5 minutes of so.
- If the dough is very soft and sticky at this point, begin to add more flour, 2 tablespoons at a time. When the dough begins to look drier and a bit stiff, increase the mixer speed by one. Continue to mix for 10 minutes, adding more flour if sticky or more water if too dry (which is less likely to happen), a little at a time. The dough should be softer and tackier than regular challah dough, but should not stick to your finger when poked. When ready, it should "climb" the dough hook.
Leave to rise:
- Lift the mass of dough out of the mixer bowl and gently shape it into a ball. Mist the mixer bowl with oil, then place the ball of dough back inside. Mist the top of the dough with a little oil. Cover tightly and leave to rise inside your (turned-off) oven, with the light on, for 3 hours or so, until nearly doubled in size. (Leaving the light on will raise the temperature inside the oven compartment to a good temperature for rising yeast dough.)
Shape and bake the dough:
- When the dough has risen, divide the ball of dough in half. Cut each half into four equal pieces with a bench knife (or other sharp knife).
- Working with one set of four pieces at a time, roll each of the four pieces into a strand about 14"-16" / 36-40cm long. Lay them one next to the other the long way, opposite you, on your work surface, and pinch the ends farthest from you firmly together to join.
- Beginning with the strand farthest to your right, pick up the strand and weave it over the strand to its left, then under the next strand, and under the last strand.
- Pick up the strand that is now on your farthest right. Again, weave it over, under, then over the three strands to its left. Repeat, always working with the strand on the farthest right and weaving over, under, over, until you reach the end of the strands.
- Pinch the ends together and tuck them firmly under the loaf. Do the same for the other end of the loaf. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise while you heat up the oven to 350°F / 175°C, about half an hour.
- Brush the challah with eggs wash. Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F / 175°C. After 30 minutes, raise the oven temperature to 375°F / 190°C and bake for an additional 7-10 minutes, until the challah is well risen and deep golden on top.