Most Jewish holidays are easy to celebrate, whether you are a traditional or nonobservant Jew, interfaith family or just interfaith friend. Keeping step with the natural rhythm of the seasons, the holidays offer good food and plenty of it, an air of festivity and thanksgiving, and rich symbolism that suggests parallels with other faiths. Much of the celebration takes place at home, where there are always special child-centered activities. Even on Rosh Hashanah, we make a game of dipping apples and challah in honey and cracking puns about the sweet year to come.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins this year at sundown on September 24, is different. It is characterized not by feasting, but fasting. Traditionally, there is little home observance. Synagogue attendance is the centerpiece of the holiday. Not only do many Jews who never walk into temple at any other time of the year show up regularly at Yom Kippur services, but even prayers familiar from festivals and Shabbat may be sung to special melodies used exclusively on Yom Kippur.
But while Yom Kippur may be a uniquely Jewish holiday, I believe it speaks to all people. You don't have to be born Jewish to experience or relate to its themes and teachings. Self-examination that entails careful scrutiny and meditation on our shortcomings. Asking forgiveness from family, friends, and fellow man for any wrongdoings we may have committed against them, intentionally or otherwise. Fasting--in atonement, yes--but also in order to feel the hunger pangs of those in need and so elicit our genuine compassion, and to establish control over ourselves so that we can do better next time. And finally, the cathartic cleansing that sends us back into the world with renewed vigor, refreshed with an appetite for life and the optimism that we can and will improve.
I find the universality of the Yom Kippur message echoed in much of the synagogue reading. The Haftarah portion from Isaiah emphasizes that merely fulfilling the rituals is not enough. We do not find favor in God's eyes just because we have fasted: we show love for God not by starving our bodies, but by feeding the hungry; not by wearing sackcloth, but by clothing the naked. Even if the traditional rituals do not resonate with all of us, Isaiah's calls to action do.
And in Jonah, God directs the prophet in a foreign city to preach before the evildoers. When the Ninevites, non-Jews, immediately repent and turn from their wicked ways, God celebrates their changed behavior and repents of the punishment he had planned for them. The passage clearly embraces any people--of any religion--who change their behavior, change their fate.
Yom Kippur is a spiritual holiday, a time meant to be personally and deeply felt. But to me, it need not be spent in a synagogue. Though we sometimes go to services now, we did not always do so. When my 19-year-old daughter Alex was small, she still wanted to experience what Yom Kippur was all about, so we began a tradition of spending the day at a place of great natural beauty: botanical gardens, beaches, grand parks. Here we, too, could feel close to God. Each of us--my husband, daughter, and I--brought a bunch of poems we had selected and read them to each other throughout the day. Often we also found ourselves talking intimately about pain and anger we had caused each other or had experienced ourselves during the past year. In a small, very close family like ours, there are many opportunities for friction. Baring our souls like this we feel naked together. We are hungry from our fast. But the words of apology and forgiveness warm us; the poems and early autumn scents and colors nourish us.
So many family members are gone now--my parents and my husband's--but here, we share stories about them and Alex occasionally sings a few songs she used to sing for them. On Yom Kippur, our loved ones feel very much with us.
At the end of the day, we feel refreshed and renewed, ready to break the fast with the special treats that we have prepared ahead. And ready to begin the new year.
These recipes are all from my first book, The Gefilte Variations: 200 Inspired Re-creations of Classics from the Jewish Kitchen (Scribner 2000).
POMEGRANATE-ORANGE SUNSET COCKTAILS
Sephardim break the fast with several refreshing beverages: sweet "milks" made from almonds or pumpkin seeds, juices of pomegranates, apricots, watermelon, or apples. American Ashkenazi Jews traditionally drink fresh orange juice, befitting a meal at which they typically serve breakfast foods. This gorgeous juice--a mixture of pomegranate and orange--combines the best of both cultures.
chilled orange juice, about 4 ounces for each serving
pomegranate juice, either bottled (pure, bottled juice is available not only at Middle Eastern shops, many specialty and health food stores, but increasingly at well-stocked supermarkets as well; don't use pomegranate molasses for this recipe ) or fresh (see Cook's Note for procedure)-3--4 ounces for each serving
mint leaves and/or thin slices of fresh orange for garnish
1. For regular sunset cocktails: Pour orange juice into tall glass tumblers or large water goblets filled with ice cubes. Gently pour in the pomegranate juice to taste (I usually combine approximately half and half proportions, but exact amounts will depend on the sweetness of the juices as well as personal preference). Colors should be marbled like a vibrant sunset; if necessary, lightly mix by swirling pomegranate juice through orange juice with a cocktail stirrer or chopstick. Garnish each glass with a mint leaf and/or an orange slice. Serve right away.
2. For wonderfully refreshing frozen cocktails: Fill an ice cube tray with pomegranate juice and freeze until completely solid. Put about 8 frozen pomegranate cubes in a blender. Add one cup of orange juice and process until smooth. Divide between two large stemmed glasses, serve with a straw, and garnish with mint leaves and a slice of fresh orange. Serve straightaway. (If the liquid begins to separate from the frozen froth, just stir it up with a cocktail stirrer.)
Cook's Note: To make fresh pomegranate juice, score just the rind of the pomegranate, as you would an orange, in quarters lengthwise. Then peel off the rind in sections carefully--it stains seriously! Scoop out the seeds and juice sacs surrounding them, breaking apart and discarding all the bitter white pith. Put the seeds and the juice sacs through a food mill, or whirl in a blender--not a food processor, which would crush the seeds--for 30 seconds, and then strain. Or rub seeds and sacs against a strainer or colander. You can also put them through an electric juicer.
Just be sure to remove all of the acrid, mouth-puckering white pith. When I was pregnant with my daughter, the only thing that would settle my stomach was the terrific pomegranate punch served at Brownie's, an old vegetarian restaurant near me. One day, my insides in dire turmoil, I attempted to recreate the drink, throwing the entire peeled fruit, pith and all, in my juicer. I could have dyed a rug with it, but I couldn't drink it.
Three medium pomegranates will yield approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups of juice. Fresh juice will keep about one week in the refrigerator, three months in the freezer.
SMOKED WHITEFISH AND FENNEL SALAD
Smoked and pickled fish are among the most popular break-the-fast foods for American Jews, who feel it helps the body replenish some of the essential salts lost during fasting.
The saltiness of the fish can be overbearing though, especially for stomachs reeling and tongues still furry from fasting. To temper the salt in this whitefish salad, I substitute the clean fresh taste of fennel for the traditional celery, and replace lemon juice with slightly sweet-yet-still-acidic grapefruit juice.
about 6 tablespoons sour cream
about 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
about 3 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, finely crushed with a mortar and pestle or ground in a spice mill
1 small fennel bulb, stalks removed and reserved for another use, some of the feathery fronds chopped and set aside for garnish, if desired
1 1/2 to 2 lbs. smoked whitefish, carefully removed from the bones (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus additional for garnish
freshly ground black pepper
accompaniments: attractively cut fresh raw vegetables (carrots, celery, endive leaves, etc.), bagels, bialys, or matzahs
In a large bowl, combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, grapefruit juice, and fennel seeds. Use a vegetable peeler to trim any strings from the fennel, if necessary, then cut the bulb into small dice and add it to the bowl. Stir in the whitefish, dill and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sour cream, mayonnaise, or grapefruit juice as needed. Garnish with additional chopped dill and fennel fronds, and serve with raw vegetables or toasted bagels, bialys, or matzahs.
Yield: about 6 servings
Cook's Note: When spooned over hot latkes or corn cakes, this salad makes an elegant first course.
LENTILS "HUMMUS-STYLE" WITH POMEGRANATE AND MINT AND TOASTED ZA'ATAR MATZAHS
Although "hummus" actually means "chickpea," quick-cooking lentils are a delicious alternative in the garlicky spread. In this version, sesame tahini is replaced by other tastes from the Middle East, pomegranate and mint, which freshen the bean puree with fragrant, sweet-sour grace notes.
The aromatic za'atar, a Middle Eastern herb blend crusting the toasted matzah, underscores the tart, fruity flavors in the hummus.
1 1/4 cups (about 1/2 pound) brown lentils
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic, according to taste
about 6 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses, or to taste
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, plus additional leaves for garnish
freshly ground black pepper
garnish: 3 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
accompaniments: trimmed, fresh raw vegetables, such as fennel, celery, carrots, red and yellow pepper strips, etc.; Toasted Za'atar Matzahs (recipe follows), plain matzoh, or hot pita quarters
1. Pick over the lentils carefully, discarding any stray objects or discolored beans, and rinse well in fresh cold water. Drain and put them in a medium saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover generously and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to moderate and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, or until very soft. About 5 - 10 minutes before the cooking time has elapsed, add salt to taste.
2. While the lentils are cooking, saute the garlic in two tablespoons olive oil until just tinged with pale gold. (You only want to eliminate the raw taste, not fully cook it.)
3. Drain the lentils, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water, and put them in a food processor, together with the garlic and its cooking oil, 3 tablespoons additional oil, the lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, mint leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Process to a smooth puree. Add some of the reserved cooking water if necessary to achieve a soft and creamy consistency. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and oil as needed. Spread hummus on a large platter and drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, if using, and mint leaves.
4. Serve with fresh vegetables, Toasted Za'atar Matzahs, or warm pita, for dipping.
Yield: about 6 servings
TOASTED ZA'ATAR MATZAHS
Some companies now package their own za'atar blends; check the spice department of well-stocked specialty or Middle Eastern groceries. Feel free to substitute a flavorful za'atar readymade blend in this recipe.
Store any leftover za'atar in a tightly closed jar.
Za'atar is also delicious sprinkled on other breads: pita, lavash, nan. Brush breads lightly with oil before sprinkling with za'atar and bake until hot and fragrant.
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sumac (available at Middle Eastern and specialty stores)
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
coarse salt to taste (start with about 1/2 teaspoon)
extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Prepare the sesame seeds. In a small (about 7-inch) heavy, ungreased skillet, toast them over moderately high heat, stirring or shaking the pan constantly, just until they release their nutty fragrance and turn light gold. Don't allow them to brown or they'll be bitter. Remove the skillet from the heat.
3. Transfer to a mortar, add the sumac, thyme, oregano, mint, and salt, and crush coarsely with the pestle. Or pulse a few times in an electric spice grinder, or put the seasonings in a plastic bag (let the sesame seeds cool slightly first) and pound well with a mallet. Taste and adjust the salt. Brush the top of the matzahs with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with the za'atar (I use 2 1/2 - 3 teaspoons for each matzah). Bake until hot and crisp. The matzah should be very fragrant, puffed slightly, and just beginning to curl at the deep brown edges. Serve hot.
APRICOT BLINTZES WITH TOASTED PISTACHIOS AND YOGURT CREAM
These blintzes are reminiscent of luscious palatschinken (Hungarian apricot crepes), but the stuffing--plumped tart fruit infused with vanilla and almond--provides more nuanced flavor and texture than the traditional jam filling. Scatter toasted pistachios over the blintzes for color and a pleasant buttery crunch.
To enjoy the blintzes at break-the-fast, prepare them a day or two ahead, or freeze them. Fry or bake just before serving. (When preparing a large number of blintzes for company, it is usually easiest to bake them.)
2 cups apple-apricot juice, apple juice, apricot nectar, or other apricot- or apple-flavored juice
10-12 ounces dried apricots, preferably tart (the California variety), cut in half, or if large, in quarters (about 1 3/4 cups)
a 2-inch piece of vanilla bean, split or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Blintz Leaves (recipe follows)
unsalted butter, oil, or a combination, for frying or baking
yogurt cream (recipe follows), labneh (available at Middle Eastern and specialty stores), sour cream, or crème fraiche; sweetened to taste, if desired, with fragrant honey
1/3 cup toasted pistachios
1. Put the juice in a wide, heavy, non-reactive 6-quart Dutch oven or saucepan, and boil it over medium-high heat until reduced by one-third, to about 1 2/3 cups. Add the apricots, vanilla, and almond extract, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, until the apricots are very tender, about 25 minutes.
2. Uncover the pan and boil over high heat, stirring, to evaporate all remaining liquid. (If you used a vanilla bean, remove it, and if desired, dry and save it for another use or bury it in granulated sugar to flavor it.) Let the apricots cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then refrigerate, covered, for another 20 minutes or up to 24 hours, if you want to fill the blintzes later.
3. Fill the blintzes. Spread one heaping tablespoon of the filling across the middle of the cooked side of each blintz. (Don't overfill or they might explode.) Fold in the sides, then fold the bottom of the blintz over the filling, and roll, jelly-roll fashion, pulling the top over tightly. You should have a neat package. Place filled blintzes seam side down, so they don't open up. (At this point, you can refrigerate the blintzes for a couple of days or freeze them for up to one month, if you want to, and fry them just before serving. Don't bother to thaw frozen blintzes, but adjust cooking time accordingly.)
4. Fry the blintzes. Heat the butter, oil, or a combination, in a heavy skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add the blintzes, seam side down, without crowding the pan. Cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Adjust the heat if necessary, and watch that the butter does not scorch.
Or you can bake them, for a slightly lighter taste. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Melt a generous quantity of butter or butter mixed with a little oil on a baking sheet or in a shallow baking pan. Add the blintzes and turn to coat well on all sides. Spread the blintzes out seam-side down on the sheet so their sides are not touching. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until crisp and golden brown on both sides. I usually find it is not necessary to turn them; if they seem slow to brown on top, however, I flip them over for a few minutes.
5. Serve the blintzes hot, topped with yogurt cream, labneh, sour cream, or crème fraiche, and a sprinkle of toasted pistachios.
Yield: about 16 to 18 blintzes
BLINTZ LEAVES (the basic crepe):
1 to 1 1/4 cups milk, preferably whole
3 large eggs
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
additional butter or, less preferable, a mild, flavorless oil (like avocado) for frying
1. In a blender, mix 1 cup of the milk, the eggs, flour, salt, and butter until smooth. Transfer the batter to a bowl. (To prepare the batter by hand, beat eggs and butter together in a bowl. Mix in 1/2 cup of the milk; gradually add flour and salt, whisking until smooth, then add another 1/2 cup of milk. Whisk until well blended.)
2. Let the batter rest for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours at room temperature. If refrigerated, batter should rest at least 2 hours or up to 10 or 12 hours (overnight is fine).
3. Stir the batter well (don't rebeat it because you want to avoid foamy bubbles). It should have the consistency of light cream. If necessary, thin it with some of the reserved milk. You may have to add more milk if the batter thickens as it stands.
4. Heat a very lightly buttered 6- or 7-inch skillet or crepe pan over moderately high heat until sizzling. (A nonstick pan works particularly well, but I find you do have to butter the pan, at least for the first blintz, to avoid a slightly rubbery texture.) Pour about 2 tablespoons of batter into the hot pan (a coffee measure is good for this), and immediately tilt the pan from side to side to distribute the batter evenly over the bottom. You may find it easier both to add the batter and swirl while holding the pan off the heat. Don't allow the batter to extend up the sides of pan when tilting or the blintz edges will become too thin and crackly.
5. Cook just until the top of the blintz is slightly dry and the edges start to curl. The bottom should be pale gold, not brown. Do not cook the other side. Loosen the blintz with a spatula and turn it out onto wax paper or a large platter, fried side up. Repeat until all the batter is used up. Pile the finished blintz leaves on a platter, separating each with sheets of wax paper or a clean kitchen cloth, and keep the exposed leaves covered to prevent them from drying out. Brush the pan with additional butter or oil only if necessary, and remember to stir the batter periodically. To avoid tears, let the freshly prepared blintz leaves cool to room temperature before filling. (And the wax paper is easier to remove when the blintz leaves are cool.)
6. Blintz leaves may be prepared ahead. Let them cool to room temperature, keeping them separated by wax paper, then wrap well with foil. Refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze them for up to one month, separated by the wax paper and well-wrapped with heavy-duty foil or in a freezer-proof container. Bring them to room temperature before filling to prevent tearing them.
Yield: about 16-18 blintz leaves
To prepare yogurt cream
Line a strainer or colander with uncolored paper towels or a double thickness of cheesecloth. Or place a coffee filter in the drip funnel of a coffeemaker like Melitta or Chemex. Spoon in whole, low- or non-fat yogurt. Set strainer, colander, or funnel over a bowl or cup to catch the liquid whey, and let drain in a cool place until yogurt is as thick and creamy as desired, from 30 minutes to two hours or more. (One quart, 4 cups, will yield about 2 cups of yogurt cream.)
Store covered in the refrigerator for up to one week.
PEACH BUTTERMILK KUGEL
Peaches--juicy and fresh in the topping and tangy dried ones dispersed throughout--bring unexpected luxury to this sleek buttermilk custard noodle pudding. A slightly more indulgent variation--creamier and sweeter-follows in the Cook's Note.
8 ounces medium or wide flat egg noodles (not the twisted, spiral kind, which won't absorb as much of the liquids and flavoring)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus additional butter or oil for greasing the pan
4 large eggs
1/3 - 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (according to preference; you may prefer to use the smaller amount for a kugel served during the meal, the larger amount for a more dessert-like kugel)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups well-shaken buttermilk
6--7 ounces dried peaches, snipped with kitchen scissors into small pieces (1 cup)
For the topping:
5-6 medium, ripe peaches (about 3--4 cups when cut into wedges), peeled only if the peel is thick or bitter
1 teaspoon almond extract or 2 tablespoons amaretto or cassis (optional)
about 1/4 cup granulated or packed regular brown sugar (depending on sweetness of fruit and personal preference)
1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Bring 3 quarts of cold water and 1 teaspoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large saucepan. Add the noodles, and cook until just tender. Drain well, toss with the butter, and set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the maple syrup, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Add the buttermilk and continue beating until the ingredients are smooth and thoroughly incorporated. Stir the dried peaches into the noodles (or use your fingers to toss them together and break up any clumps of dried fruit) and turn into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Pour the buttermilk mixture evenly over the noodles. Cover the pan with foil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or, better still, overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Uncover and bake the pudding for 50 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the topping. Cut each peach into about 8 wedges (you should have 3-4 cups peach wedges) and if desired, toss with the almond extract, amaretto, or cassis. In a small bowl, crumble together the brown sugar, flour, butter, cinnamon, and salt with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal. After the kugel has cooked for 50 minutes, remove it from the oven and arrange the peaches decoratively on top (if the peaches have thrown off a lot of liquid, drain it all out first). Strew the crumble mixture over the fruit and return the pan to the oven for an additional 40-50 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling and the kugel is golden, just pulling away from the edges of the pan, and slightly firm. (If the fruit you are using is somewhat firm and not particularly juicy, it will not, of course, bubble, so check that it is meltingly tender and completely cooked through.)
4. Let the kugel cool at least 30 minutes until set before cutting. Serve warm (reheat if necessary), room temperature or slightly chilled (not icy cold).
Yield: about 10 servings
Cook's Notes: For a lighter kugel, you can omit the crumble mixture from the topping, but make sure the peaches are well-drained. After arranging the peaches over the kugel, just sprinkle them with brown sugar to taste.
For a creamier, less custardy pudding, use 3 eggs, 2 cups of buttermilk, and add 4 ounces of softened cream cheese. Beat the cream cheese with the eggs first, then add the maple syrup (use only 1/3 cup--you're using less of the tangy buttermilk, and the cream cheese is somewhat sweet-tasting), vanilla, salt, and buttermilk as above. Make sure to beat all the ingredients well until thoroughly blended.