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Baking challah for a new year, binding five generations together

The hands of Evie Hession, her sister Hazel Hession along with their mother Rachel Michael were at work making challah bread Saturday for their Rosh Hashana dinner Sunday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

BROOKLINE — For years, the secret to Carol Michael’s grandmother’s challah bread recipe was a mystery. Even after years of kneading the traditional Jewish loaves for her family’s Friday shabbat dinners and the holidays, Tobye Hollander wouldn’t reveal her recipe.

So the family came up with an ingenious ploy. They wrote to the food editor of the New York Times and asked the paper to profile Hollander and spotlight her challah recipe. Surely, they thought, that would get grandma to divulge the recipe.

“My mother said ‘the only way I’m going to get that recipe is if I make her famous,’” Carol Michael, 69, recounted at the dining room table of her Brookline home Saturday afternoon.

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The trick worked. Hollander gave the recipe up to a Times reporter. A clipping of the original 1971 article still hangs in the living room.

It was a good thing too, because five generations later Hollander’s recipe, with a few modifications, is still serving her descendants.

On Saturday, the day before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, three generations of Michaels gathered to put the old recipe to the test once again.

“Foods are so much a part of the holiday,” Carol said.

Earlier on Saturday, Carol and her daughter, Rachel Michael, 38, had mixed the water, oil, yeast, and honey in with the flour and eggs and let the dough rise. Then they kneaded it.

Rachel, a professional recipe developer and tester, has helped her mother adapt the old recipe just slightly. Ovens and ingredients aren’t what they used to be when Hollander was making challah. They cut the oven time down to 25 minutes from an hour (“It was always dry,” Carol explains) and they swapped fresh yeast (too hard to find nowadays, Rachel says) for dry yeast.

One other change, Hollander never made her challah sweet. “Even on the holidays,” Carol said. “Somehow the sweetness must have come from the process.”

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Now, a little honey adds the sweetness.

By the afternoon, Rachel Michael’s daughters Evie Hession, 8, and Hazel Hession, 5, eyed the risen dough in a bowl from across the table. The pair are the latest to learn great-great grandma Tobye’s recipe.

Rachel pulled the dough from the bowl, divided it in two balls, and placed it in front of her daughters. “Roll it into a snake,” Rachel told Evie and Hazel. “Get the air bubbles out,” Carol told the girls as the rolled.

Next, the girls, with help from mom and grandma, curled the two dough “snakes” into spirals.

Normally, challah is braided, but on Rosh Hashana it is tradition that the bread is baked in the form of a circle.

Carol Michael (left) with her granddaughters Hazel Hession and Evie Hession and her daughter Rachel Michael were at work making challah bread Saturday. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“My sense of why it’s a circle is that the year is a cycle. We always have the opportunity to change and reflect,” Carol said. “The circle really represents that moving around of the year and returning to one’s self.”

The pair of circles completed, the girls spread egg glaze with a green brush over each loaf before their mother placed them on a sheet tray and popped them into the oven.

Twenty-five minutes later, Rachel pulled one loaf out of the oven. It steamed when she cut off an edge and took the first bite.

“You’re supposed to let it cool,” Rachel admits. “But sometimes you can’t.”

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Was it good? Running off with a slice in her mouth, Hazel nodded “yes.”

Rosh Hashana, observed from Sunday evening to Tuesday evening this year, will usher in the year 5783 on the Jewish calendar. A time of reflection and fresh starts, families come together to eat apples dipped in honey and other dishes, and shofar horns are blown at special services. Many synagogues across the country are finally returning to in-person observations of the High Holy Days, after two years waylaid by the pandemic. Temple Israel in Boston, where Carol is a former president, has come “back to life” and over the past year, and will have “mixed presence” celebrations with in-person and online options, she said.

“It was not always about being religious,” Carol said of her family’s celebrations. “It was a time for gathering and continuing the traditions.”

Challah, and making it together, has always been a part of those traditions.

Rachel pulled the second loaf out of the oven a couple minutes after the first. “This one took a turn,” she said. It was a bit lopsided.

“That’s what life is like,” Carol said with a smile. “It’s never linear or perfectly circular.”

Evie Hession sampled a piece of Challah bread that she and her family made. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Alexander Thompson can be reached at alexander.thompson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson