San Francisco Chronicle
Sweet thoughts for Rosh Hashanah
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the evening that begins the Jewish New Year. Growing up, I knew intellectually that January was the new year, but returning to school after a long hot summer seemed more like the start of the year than Jan. 1 could ever be.
It felt - and still does - like the world was beginning all over again.
Religious considerations aside, I always feel a frisson of excitement each year at this very moment in time, as the summery world segues into autumn.
I mean, summer is summer, even if you're stuck in fog-shrouded San Francisco. From the moment you realize summer is here, life feels like it will be this way forever: long hours of daylight that lazily while themselves away. There is gardening and barbecuing and swimming, and even if you don't see any sun for days or weeks at a time, you still know that summer fun is only a short hop away. And if you never manage to have even one picnic, or go swimming at all, you still know its summer because of the luscious sun-drenched things to eat.
Then one day - right about now - you realize something is different. You take a deep breath: the sweet fragrance of the season is layered with a whiff of autumnal scent. And no matter how sad you might be to say good-bye to the summer, this new season thrills with its promise.
Fruits of fall
What do I feel like eating this autumn? Will it be a good season for figs, apples, pears, persimmons? What about pomegranates? That first moment when my nose sends out the message of change, I'm suddenly eager for it all to begin.
And begin it does, with Rosh Hashanah, the first in a series of holidays. Rosh Hashanah means, literally, "The Head of the Year," an observation at once solemn and happy.
Following a little more than a week later is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement.
Then comes Sukkot, a harvest festival and hot on its heels is Simchat Torah, the rejoicing in the Torah. By then we are completely into the swing of the New Year.
While every holiday throughout the year has its traditional, symbolic and/or ritual food, Rosh Hashanah's special flavor is sweetness - apples and honey, honey and apples, the crunch of tangy fruit mixed with rich sweetness.
Each person takes a piece of apple, dips it into honey, then offers up a prayer in hope of a sweet new year.
Challah, too, is dipped into honey, for a sweet new year - and what a challah it is for this holiday: studded with raisins or candied fruit, topped with tiny candy sprinkles, and shaped round, in the hope that the year will be a round and complete one, season following season until we are back to this point next year. The circle is the unbroken line of life's continuity.
The holiday table glistens with more sweetness as each dish is served. Sour, sharp, and spicy-hot flavors give way to sweet: winter squash such as pumpkin instead of the more savory zucchini of summer; sweet potatoes instead of white ones; meats cooked with honey instead of tomatoes or chiles, and delicate rather than hot spices: cinnamon, saffron, cloves, vanilla.
The fruits of the season are often added to even the most savory of pots: quince, prunes, pumpkins, persimmons, figs, grapes and pomegranates all find their way into meats, poultry, or substantial platters like couscous or rice. Some extend the sweet theme to colors, too: no dark, foreboding colors on the table, green olives instead of black, mint or green tea instead of black coffee, and foods that are white for purity, or yellow evoking joy and happiness.
Each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I start to think of the dishes I'll serve at my holiday table throughout the fall.
Ways to use apples
Right now I'm excited about a little salad of baby greens, thinly sliced apple, and honey-balsamic vinaigrette, with a garnish of crisp sesame-phyllo wafers.
Sometimes I make roast chicken with apples, adding wedges of tart sweet apple and whole cloves of garlic to the pan when the chicken - that I've rubbed with salt, garlic, olive oil and cinnamon - is cooked about halfway through. A few wedges stuck inside the cavity help perfume and moisturize the bird from the inside out. Other times I prepare cinnamon-ginger chicken with grapes - luckily, several kinds are now in season (see "Market Watch," Page F2).
And then there's my apple cake, which truthfully is not my apple cake, rather one that came to me as a young adult. I was going to services each week. Afterward when we gathered for tea and goodies, I perused the cookies and lemon bars, oatmeal morsels and crisp chocolate chip meringues, until I saw what I was looking for: apple cake.
One day, as Rosh Hashanah approached, a little old lady came over to me. In her thickly accented English she said, "I see you like ziss cake; I can teach you to make it if you vahnt." I found myself in her kitchen, slicing and stirring and pouring.
And I suddenly saw that she had, in addition to a warm smile, a tattoo of numbers on her arm. She had been through a hell that I couldn't possibly imagine and yet here she was, able to smile, to enjoy making an apple cake and showing me how to prepare one myself.
Savoring the sweetness
The simple sponge cake layered with apples is one of those things that tastes best the day after it is made, and then even better the next day as it becomes even moister as the fruit gives off its juices. It will disappear quicker than you expect; you might want to double the recipe and make two. Whenever I make the cake, I think of the woman who showed me how.
The entire time period of the Jewish New Year is about the year to come, and also about remembering the years that have passed. The tradition of sweetness and the sweetness of tradition. Dip your apple into the honey, and enjoy both your memories and your hopes.
Polish Apple Cake
This is even better the next day, and the day after. Serve in sturdy little squares, sprinkled with a little bit of sifted powdered sugar. It's delicious with tea or to make next week, as a break-the-fast treat for Yom Kippur. It can be easily doubled; it's also dairy-free.
* 11/2 cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for dusting pan
* 1 teaspoon baking powder
* 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 2 eggs, lightly beaten
* 1 1/4 cups sugar
* 1/2 cup vegetable oil
* 1/4 cup orange juice
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 3 flavorful sweet-tart apples, or a combination of several different types
* 11/2 teaspoons lemon juice
* 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* Powdered sugar, for dusting the finished cake
Instructions: Prepare an 8-by-8- inch square baking pan. Grease with oil, butter or margarine, as desired, then shake several tablespoons of flour into the pan, shaking side to side and tipping, so that the flour sticks to the greased surface. Tap out excess flour.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with 1 cup of the sugar then add the oil, orange juice and vanilla extract, mixing until it's all amalgamated. Stir this into the flour until it forms a batter; do not over-mix. Set aside for a few moments while you prepare the apples.
Core, but do not peel, the apples, then thinly slice and toss with the lemon juice, the remaining sugar and the cinnamon.
Spoon half the batter into the cake pan, then layer the apples, then spoon the remaining batter on top of the apples. Before you scrape the bowl, make another layer of the remaining apples. Now scrape the bowl, and dot the remaining batter across the top of the apples.
Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the pan. The cake is done when a skewer is poked into it and comes out clean. (I use a strand of raw spaghetti instead of wondering where I've left my skewer; use the spaghetti then throw it away.)
Leave the cake to cool in its pan; the apple juices will soak into the cake and form a moist cake.
Per serving: 390 calories, 4 g protein, 60 g carbohydrate, 15 g fat (1 g saturated), 53 mg cholesterol, 218 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Sephardic Cinnamon-Ginger Chicken with a Cornucopia of Grapes
The cinnamon and ginger combination with fruit is inspired by Moroccan flavors, though I switched fresh ginger for dried and added as many different types of grapes as I could get my hands on. You could make the chicken with one type of grape and it would still be delish.
* About 2 ounces fresh ginger, grated, or to taste
* 6 to 8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
* Juice of 1 lemon + more to taste
* 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or a little more, as desired
* Kosher salt or sea salt to taste
* Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
* 1 whole chicken, about 21/2-31/2 pounds
* About 3 pounds grapes in total (mixed varieties if available)
* 6 shallots, chopped
* 1 cup chicken broth
* 1 cup orange juice
* 2 tablespoons dark, flavorful honey, or to taste
For the marinade: Combine the ginger, garlic, lemon, olive oil, cinnamon, salt and pepper and rub a third of this onto the chicken. Set it aside to marinate while you do the rest of the preparation (it can be left overnight).
If any of your grapes have seeds - as Muscat and Italia grapes do - halve them and remove their seeds. You probably want no more than half your grapes to have seeds.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
For the chicken: Place the chicken in a baking pan and place half the shallots into the chicken cavity, along with the second third of the marinade, and a handful of grapes.
Place the baking pan in the oven and roast for 1-13/4 hours, depending on the size of the chicken. It is done when the juices run clear when it is pricked deeply in a thick part of its flesh, such as the thigh. .
Remove chicken to platter and keep warm.
Reserve 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and skim off the rest, leaving behind the juices and roasted bits in the bottom of the pan.
Lightly saute the remaining shallots in the 1 tablespoon of fat until the shallots are softened and golden in places, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, orange juice and honey, and cook over medium high heat until the liquid reduces to an intensely flavored, slightly thickened sauce.
Add half the remaining grapes and the remaining third of the marinade, along with the juices from the chicken and scrapings from the pan. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the sauce ingredients blend, 5-7 minutes.
Remove from the heat and season with salt, pepper, and honey to taste. Add a squeeze of lemon if needed; add the grapes.
Carve the chicken, pouring the juices into the sauce, and serve the chicken napped with the grape sauce.
Per serving: 650 calories, 30 g protein, 89 g carbohydrate, 23 g fat (5 g saturated), 86 mg cholesterol, 239 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Baby Greens with Apples, Honey-Balsamic Vinaigrette & Sesame-Phyllo Wafers
The salad is so fresh, the apples bright morsels in the greens, the honey-balsamic vinaigrette all about sweetness, and the crisp little wafers all about texture and indulgence. It's an easy but fancy dish.
* 4 sheets phyllo pastry, either fresh or defrosted
* 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
* About 1/4 cup, or as needed, raw, hulled sesame seeds
* About 2 quarts baby greens, including mizuna, watercress, arugula, other leafy flavorful greens
* About 1/4 cup, or half a bunch, chives, coarsely chopped
* Freshly ground pepper and kosher salt as desired
* 2 sweet-tangy juicy apples, cored and cut into julienne, or thin slices
* 2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
* 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Instructions: Turn the oven to 400°.
Cut each phyllo sheet in either half or thirds. Brush with a little of the olive oil, then fold up three or so times, until it forms a rectangular or triangular wafer. Brush both bottoms and tops with olive oil, and spoon a generous amount of sesame seeds on top of each pastry. Continue until the wafers are all prepared and the phyllo dough is all used up. You might have leftover sesame seeds, and you should have about half the olive oil remaining.
Bake the pastries for about 5-10 minutes, or until the sesame seeds are lightly browned, and the phyllo pastry is crisp and golden browned. Remove from oven when they are ready. It might take a while longer, as it will depend on how hot your oven runs, but start checking them at 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
On individual plates or one serving platter arrange the leafy greens, then top with the chives and a grinding of salt and pepper over the whole thing. Arrange the apple slices on top.
Mix together the remaining olive oil with the honey and balsamic vinegar.
When ready to serve, drizzle it over the salad. Break the phyllo wafers into large pieces and scatter on top.
Per serving: 375 calories, 5 g protein, 36 g carbohydrate, 24 g fat (3 g saturated), 0 cholesterol, 126 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.
Marlena Spieler's latest book is "Macaroni & Cheese" (Chronicle Books). She divides her time between the Bay Area and London. E-mail her at [email protected]
, or visit her Web site, marlenaspieler.com.
This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle