If you were the sort of kid who never met a potholder loom s/he didn't like and/or was the designated French braider at sleepovers, this challah's for you. And if you weren't, go ahead and surprise yourself with how easy it is to get an impressive-looking result.
What's the deal with round challah?
It's customary to make round challah loaves at Rosh haShanah (and often throughout the chaggim, fall holidays), representing the circular of time--or, if we're being a touch philosophical, which we usually are, if we're me, the spiral of time. The simplest way to shape a round loaf is to roll the dough into a long, thick rope and coil it into, appropriately enough, a spiral. Probably due to some mechanics of oven spring that I don't know about, the center of the dough spiral gets pushed upwards and this configuration makes a very striking, festive challah in itself.
That being said, it is surprisingly simple to braid a traditional, beautiful six-strand round challah--easier, in fact, than braiding a regular six-strand loaf. It's possible to make braided round loaves other ways (four-strand is also popular), but the six-strander is actually easier. It also gives you a total of twelve strands, a desireable number for which there are lots of different explanations and ways of achieving challah-wise, but which, in the interest of time, we'll just note as a plus. (My entire family just breathed a sigh of relief for not having to endure a lecture on number symbolism in Judaism.)
Step-by-step: braiding a 6-strand round challah
Step 1: roll six strands
You can shape any challah dough into a six-strand round. Go ahead and divide the dough as you normally would (my recipe makes two challahs, so I divide the risen dough into two parts). Then, roll each division into six thick strands, each about 14-15" / 36-38cm long.
Step 2: set up the strands
Set up your challah by placing three strands horizontally and three strands vertically (don't worry about crossing them yet):
Step 3: weave the center of the challah
You are going to weave the strands as follows, but first let me warn you that the doing's easy even while the describing's hard. You know that stuff like, "cross the former strand 7 over the new strand 3"? None of that here, but feel free to skip the next few paragraphs and just refer to the handy construction paper mock up below:
Okay, for the verbally inclined: Working with the top horizontal strand, going either right to left or left to right, gently lift up the vertical strands and arrange the strands under, over, under the vertical strands.
Then, you alternate for the middle horizontal strand. Gently arrange it over, under, over the vertical strands, smooshing it up to so that it's flush with the top horizontal strand.
And finally, the bottom horizontal strand goes under, over, under the vertical strands:
This is how your challah should look when it's all woven up--note that there's a neat little square in the center of the challah where the middle horizontal strand goes under the middle vertical strand:
Step 4: braid the four corners
What you've done so far is basically to weave a challah square, which has conveniently left you with a set of three strands on each side of the square. Three, as in a plain vanilla sleepover braid. All you have to do now is braid each set of three:
Step 5: tuck the small braids under
Okay, final shaping step: all you have to do is tuck the little corner braids under the woven center of the challah. Use them to push up the center of the challah a bit:
Step 6: Final proof, top + bake
Okay, that's it. You're done! Cover your shaped challah with a clean kitchen towel and let it rise for a half hour or so while you let your oven get nice and hot. Before putting in the loaves, brush them with beaten egg (or your favorite wash) and sprinkle on any number of delightful toppings my kids won't countenance, including but not limited to poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and furikake.
Round challahs generally require about 10 minutes extra in the oven, give or take, because of their denser centers, but start checking yours around the 35 minutes. (Mine take 45 minutes total.)