Stroll through the farmers’ market, and you feel fall approaching. As we say goodbye to summer’s heat, those achingly sweet, soft, dribble-down-your-chin melons, peaches and plums give way to fall’s bounty of apples: cool and crisp as an autumn’s day.
Dipping apple slices in honey, Jews the world over begin the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah, as we ask God to renew us for a good and sweet New Year.
Everything on the holiday table reflects this hope. Dishes are sweet, fruit-laden and circular in appearance. No sour and bitter flavors for this holiday!
Apples belong to the rose family of plants. Approximately 10,000 different varieties grow in the world, more than 7,000 of them in the United States. But why do we eat apples for the Jewish New Year?
Some rabbis contend that when Jacob disguised himself as Esau in order to trick his father, Isaac, into blessing him as the first-born, Isaac – who was blind – noticed a sweet smell emanating from Jacob. Isaac likened the smell to a field blessed by God, which later commentators took to be an apple field. Because this incident is said to have occurred on Rosh Hashanah, the apple became an appropriate choice for the holiday.
Others cite Song of Songs 8:5 in which Solomon refers to romantic love – and by analogy, God’s love for the Jewish people – in this way: “Beneath the apple tree I aroused your love.” On Rosh Hashanah the apple is the reminder of this special bond.
Like other Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown on September 4, began as an agricultural festival. Whatever the Biblical explanation, it is no coincidence that the apple, which comes to season in the fall, holds a central place in this fall celebration.
While the Bible mentions a day for blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), there is no scriptural evidence of a holiday called Rosh Hashanah. And like other Jewish holidays, it might have remained an agricultural festival if not for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans, forcing the Jewish people into exile.
“Centuries later Rosh Hashanah evolved, because, although our New Year had previously been in the spring, the culture our ancestors were living in had a New Year celebration in the fall,” explained Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, a professor of literature at American Jewish University in L.A. and author of The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking: 200 Seasonal Recipes and their Traditions, with her sister, food journalist Phyllis Glazer.
“There’s a beautiful line in one of the Psalms: ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” she noted. “And so the rabbis looked for scriptural evidence in the Bible itself in order to preserve the festivals. All the holidays as we know them today are products of hundreds of years of discussion that are captured in the Talmud.”
While we begin the festivities by dipping apples in honey, we echo the theme with dessert: Sticky Toffee Apple Pudding Cake from Jewish Traditional Cooking: Over 150 Nostalgic & Contemporary Jewish Recipes (Kyle Books, $29.95), a new cookbook from Ruth Joseph and Simon Round. This confection combines both apples and honey, and like so many recipes in the book, is a modern twist with more than a nod to its traditional roots.
“In every Jewish memory there’s a grandmother, aunt or mother – the balebusta – who cooked the recipes of the past,” says Joseph. “My dream is to revisit those recipes and study their origins, and then to devise a perfect step-by-step illustrated recipe so that enthusiastic cooks of the future can enjoy tastes that might otherwise disappear.” Both Ashkenazic and Sephardic recipes get this thoughtful treatment: Baba Ganoush, Apple Strudel, Cheese Blintzes and some surprises too like Vietnamese Jewish Penicillin (chicken soup) and a decadent Chocolate Mousse.
Potato kugel, that old standby of many an Ashkenazi holiday table, gets a modern makeover with the addition of almonds and the use of two varieties of potatoes. “In the past, kugels often had a leaden, gluey, grayish inside,” Joseph writes. “My mission was to change that image and bring the now golden potato kugel crisply and joyfully into the 21st century.”
Sticky Toffee Apple Pudding Cake for Rosh Hashanah
1 cup (2 sticks) non-dairy margarine or butter
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2⁄3 cup honey (or corn syrup)
1 3⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
3⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 organic free-range eggs
4 tablespoons soy milk or whole milk
1 cooking apple
Juice and grated zest of 1⁄2 lemon
8 dates, pitted and finely chopped
4 tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped (optional)
1 Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan, line with parchment paper and spray paper.
2 Melt margarine with brown sugar and honey in a small pan. Set aside to cool slightly.
3 Sift flour, baking soda and cinnamon into a bowl.
4 Beat eggs with milk in large mixing bowl. Peel and grate apple and mix with lemon zest and juice. Combine with egg mixture and stir in dates and ginger (if using). Pour in melted honey mixture and combine thoroughly. Quickly fold in flour mixture and spoon into prepared pan.
5 Bake until cake is gloriously golden brown and risen and until toothpick comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm or cold with ice cream. This dessert keeps for days and remains sticky and delicious.
2 small or 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound red or Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and left whole
1⁄2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 organic free-range eggs
1 1⁄2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 pounds baking potatoes (such as russet)
4 tablespoons ground almonds
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease a large baking pan or line with parchment paper.
2 In a small frying pan, gently cook onion in 1 tablespoon of the oil until soft but not colored. Meanwhile, boil red or Yukon gold potatoes in their skins about 15 minutes until almost tender but not soft. Drain and set aside.
3 Scrape softened onion into food processor, add parsley and eggs, and purée until smooth. Scrape into a large bowl and stir in lemon juice.
(If you don’t have a processor, simply finely chop parsley and mix with beaten eggs and cooked onion.)
4 Peel baking potatoes and grate on coarse side of grater into lemon/egg mixture. Mix well with your hands, taking care that potato is coated with lemon/egg mixture; lemon will stop potato from turning black. Mix in ground almonds, sugar and salt, and pour into prepared pan. Thickly slice boiled red or Yukon gold potatoes and arrange over top. Brush with remaining oil and season with more salt and pepper. Bake until slightly puffed up and golden, about 1 hour.
Source: Jewish Traditional Cooking by Ruth Joseph and Simon Round