It seems like we just washed the last of the sand out of our hair and made the annual pilgrimage to Staples for school supplies. But Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year,” is upon us: The Jewish New Year begins this Sunday night.
When we sat down to write about Rosh Hashanah, the first thing that came to mind was food. (Big surprise there.) As moms, cooks and those “chosen” to host, we enjoy Rosh Hashanah more than Passover, when our menu is dictated by tradition and there’s matzah in everything. No matter how much our guests kvell at the seder, we know they don’t really love eating a pesachdik kugel.
On the other hand, Rosh Hashanah is delicious. What would you expect from a holiday where the starring foods are apples and honey? It’s a much beloved tradition to dip a slice of apple in honey and eat it as a wish for a sweet new year. The blessing that accompanies this action thanks God for the fruit of the trees: Baruch atah Adonai, Ehlohaynu melech Ha-olam, Borai p’ree ha’aitz.
We get annoyed when our local supermarket drags out matzah and yahrzeit candles for every Jewish holiday, but we were happy to see those little plastic bear bottles filled with honey on the supermarket shelves last week.
Many families even bring out decorative honey bowls or cute apple plates to dress up their dinner tables; this is in keeping with the tradition of “hiddur mitzvah,” that is, if you are going to perform a mitzvah (commandment,) you should do it as beautifully and with as much intention as possible.
Challah, the oblong braided egg bread that’s traditionally eaten on almost every Jewish holiday, assumes a round shape for Rosh Hashanah. Some say that the shape symbolizes the circular nature of the years and the continuation of life. This is an example of minhag, a custom that is not mentioned in the Torah or mandated by Jewish law but is followed nonetheless.
Aside from the apples and honey and round challot, our menu options are wide open – but we’ve heard from a number of friends who are still serving the usual suspects. We don’t just mean brisket and chicken; we’re cooking that, too. They plan on offering gefilte fish and matzah ball soup – because their “husbands and children can’t do without it.” Other friends assert that gefilte fish “is just for Passover.”
We say: Do whatever your family wants. We’ve bought those hamantashen that the supermarket offers year round and eaten them in August, long after Purim has passed. They were still delicious.
Speaking of dessert: Another way to get your fill of apples and honey is in cake. Honey cake is a dark, sweet loaf cake that ranges from “really good” when it’s homemade to “terrible” if you purchase one of the commercially baked, hermetically sealed loaves. On the other hand, it’s hard to find a bad Jewish apple cake – unless, perhaps, you are searching for a gluten-free, sugar-free, low-carb, organically grown one.
We don’t want to be politically incorrect, but this week we saw a question from a food writer who was looking for updated versions of the holiday classics. Her ideas were dipping apples into agave nectar instead of honey and gluten-free apple cake. Oy! That just crosses the line. She doesn’t know our families. We demand rich, buttery, authentic desserts, like this one, which comes from Ellen’s Grandmom Mary. (And yes, Grandmom Mary was Jewish. Her parents were Abraham and Molly and evidently, they wanted their children’s names to sound American.)
Grandmom Mary’s Jewish Apple Cake
5 nice apples cut up into bite-sized pieces. You can peel them or leave the skin on
3 cups flour
1½ cups sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup orange juice (if you want it to be parve) or milk
3 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. vanilla
choppped nuts, if you want
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
Grease and flour a tube or bundt pan.
Toss the cut up apples with 1 cup of the sugar and the cinnamon and nutmeg and set aside in a separate bowl. Mix the other ingredients in order. It’s best to use a mixer or food processor because it will be a very thick, heavy batter. If it seems really thick, add a few more tablespoons more of orange juice.
Pour half of the batter into a greased and floured pan. Sprinkle half of the apple mixture on top of the batter, and then pour the remaining batter on top. Put the rest of the apples on top of that. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon, brown sugar and chopped nuts.
Bake at 350 for 55-65 minutes or until the cake looks brown and done and dry to the touch. Pop it out of the pan when it is just a tiny bit warm to the touch. Enjoy!