As the sun sets next Sunday night, those celebrating the Jewish New Year 5752, Rosh Hashana, turn their thoughts to the year that has passed and the new one that awaits.
Early autumn brings the Jewish Days of Awe, commencing with Rosh Hashana and culminating with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It is a time of reflection and assessment, filled with joy and solemnity. It is a time to review one's merits and one's pitfalls and to re-commit to a positive life course. For many, Rosh Hashana memories include the squeaky feel of black patent shoes or a rustling new holiday dress, the timeless New Year's services and songs, Hebrew school snacks of honey and apple slices, and theheady scent of Indian summer that pervades the warm, familial gatherings. Prayers for peace, forgiveness, health and happiness are shared by all, and the theme of"sweetness" for the new year underscores the season. Foods such as apples, raisins, pomegranates and rounded egg breads are served, edible symbols of this sweetness, as well as of the continuity of life.
For those of us who divide holiday time among cooking, socializing and reflecting, the Jewish New Year is a busy, bustling time. Plans and preparations for the main and side dishes begin a week or two ahead. Grandmothers, mothers and new homemakers make a mental note to stock up on kosher wine, extra eggs for baking, lots of apples and plenty of golden honey. For some, the festive meals are shared efforts as family and friends pitch in with a specialty dish -- volunteered to lighten the culinary load and to add the contributor's unique signature de cuisine.
To "sweeten" the new year ahead, both symbolically and literally, Jewish bakers and cooks have long used honey in many of their festive recipes -- resulting in a host of treats that are as indelibly a part of the New Year's week as is the sound of the shofar (the ceremonial ram's horn that commences the New Year's services).
While apple desserts are another traditional part of the menu finale, dark and spicy honey cakes and the round, honey-sweetened, raisin-studded faigele, or egg bread, are the starring attractions. The faigele (meaning "little bird" in Yiddish) is a richer than usual, turban-styled challah (the braided egg bread served on Sabbath) that is chock-full of plump raisins.
Though the faigele is a standard item, the variety of honey cakes, on the other hand, is extensive, ranging from dark or light cakes, spicy or mild, nut and raisin-filled, or simple chiffon cakes enlivened with honey and the addition of dark coffee.
Baking with honey offers many appealing attributes. In fact, using honey in everyday baking has much to recommend it for all bakers. For instance, if you are using a shortening or oil in your baking instead of butter, you'll notice that honey helps your recipes brown nicely -- making up for the fact that there is no butter to assist on that score. Honey also helps in bakery conservation -- goods baked with it have a tendency to stay fresh longer.
New Year 5752 or 1991 (depending which calender you refer to) can be all the sweeter with any one of these offerings. As is customary this time of year, we wish all a 'L'shanah tovah u'metuka" -- "A healthy and sweet new year."