Happy New Year! When planning the menu for Rosh Hashanah eve, many of us rely on the customs we grew up with, like gefilte fish for Ashkenazim, and spicy Harimeh for Sepharadim. But like the Passover seder in April, the ancient Rosh Hashanah meal throughout the world evolved to include the eating of symbolic foods; some considered to have mystical powers; others a subtle way of asking God to fulfill our prayers. Still others were chosen because their names in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic or even Ladino, have connotations suitable to the contemplative yet hopeful nature of the holiday.
We begin the meal begins by dipping apples in honey, to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year, then dip a piece of round challah, symbolizing continuity and wholeness, into honey rather than salt (customary on the Sabbath and other holidays). Ages-old designs for Yom Kippur challot include a spiral challah with a little dough key shape on top (to open up the gates of heaven), birds (to carry prayers on high), and hands in blessing (symbolic of the High Priest's prayer as described in the Talmud).
Whether gefilted or not, fish is a millennia old symbol of fertility, and scholars agree that the custom of eating chicken probably arose to dispense with the sinful Kapparot chicken. Even tzimmis, a traditional Rosh Hashanah side dish, is meaningful. The choice of carrots comes from merren, the Yiddish word for carrots, which also means "more" or "increased". Sliced into coin-shaped pieces, they represent the desire for prosperity and good fortune. And as for kreplach, an ancient mystical tradition suggests that since Rosh Hashanah falls at the beginning of a lunar month when the new moon is still invisible, some holiday foods should be "covered" as well. The round shape signifies wholeness.
But many Ashkenazim are unfamiliar with one of the loveliest customs of all -- the "Blessings Tray" originating in North Africa, and adopted by an increasing number of Ashkenazim in recent years. The Blessings Tray features seven edible items, each a symbol or pun for the New Year, with an accompanying blessing.
In addition to apples and honey, a Blessings Tray usually includes separate bowls of pomegranates, that according to legend hold 613 seeds, the number of mitzvot mentioned in the Torah, a fish or sheep's head with the blessing "to be at the head and not at the tail" (a head of cabbage or broccoli would also do) and little dishes made of carrots, leeks, beets and dates, all evoking Aramaic puns on the desire that enemies be "cut off," "removed" or "consumed."
Following are three delicious ways to enjoy a sweet New Year, adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins, 2004).
CHICKEN THIGHS WITH HONEY, OLIVES & OREGANO
All these ingredients could have been found in a biblical kitchen, except curiously enough the chicken, which arrived in the Holy Land from India around Talmudic times, spreading from East Asia and the Mediterranean to the rest of the world. Over the centuries, it has become one of the most beloved foods in Israel.
12 chicken thighs
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon capers in brine, drained and coarsely `chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons dried oregano
10 ounces pitted green olives
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup flavorful honey (not clover)
1/2 cup dry white wine
Rinse the chicken thighs and place in a bowl. Pour over boiling water to cover and let stand for 2-3 minutes. Using a sharp knife, scrape the skin to remove excess surface fat. Dry and place in a non-reactive ovenproof casserole.
Mix together all the ingredients for the marinade, except for the honey and wine, cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight, turning occasionally.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Turn all the chicken thighs skin up, and pour the wine over. Brush the thighs generously with honey, and cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 hour, remove cover and continue baking till the tops are golden-brown.
Although coin-shaped carrot tzimmes is a traditional dish for Rosh Hashanah, I must admit I've never been a great fan. Our friend Adi invented this carrot-free tzimmes for people just like me. It's a different and refreshing take on the traditional version, and its sweetness and rich flavor makes it a welcome addition to any Rosh Hashanah menu.
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut in chunks
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried apricots, each cut in half
1/2 cup dates, each pitted and cut in half
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/3 cup honey or brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tablespoon Dry Sherry or Calvados or liqueur of your choice
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
Cook sweet potatoes and pumpkin in lightly salted boiling water just to cover, just till tender. Drain and save the cooking liquid.
Transfer the sweet potatoes and pumpkin to a large greased casserole dish. Add dried fruit, orange juice and brown sugar. Mix well. Add cinnamon stick in the center, cover and place in the preheated oven. Bake covered for 1 hour.
Lower heat to 200°F (100°C) remove cover and continue to bake for 30 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick and add liqueur 15 minutes before the end of baking. If the tzimmes looks dry, add some of the reserved cooking liquid.
THE BEST HONEY CAKE YET
Doing a survey of all our friends and relations, we found that no one we knew really liked the traditional dark honey cake, whether homemade or store-bought. No one liked the flavor. Challenged, we tried it with espresso. We tried it with brandy. We even tried it with tea. But it always seemed to come out heavy and dry - until this one. Inspired by the Romanian Jewish honey cake – which is light rather than dark - this version is light as a feather and really delicious. It's certainly the best honey cake we've ever tasted.
Makes one 12" or two 9" loaves
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups honey
6 large eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 12" loaf pan or two 9" loaf pans and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper to facilitate removal. Set aside.
Place the chopped nuts in a baking pan and toast for 10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Lower heat to 300°F (150°C).
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the oil, honey, egg yolks and spices. Sift the flour and baking powder and blend into the honey mixture till smooth.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites till foamy. Add the sugar gradually, continuing to beat till the egg whites are stiff. Fold a small amount of the egg whites into the honey mixture, then fold in the rest gradually, mixing gently each time until incorporated. Stir in the nuts.
Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 60-75 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center is almost dry (it will have fine crumbs stuck to it). Place baking pan(s) on a rack and let cool for 20 minutes before turning out on a rack to finish cooling.
Variations: Add 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger to the batter instead of the nuts. Add 1/2 cup finely chopped candied citron to the batter instead of or in addition to the nuts.