The round shape and sweet tastes of Rosh Hashanah foods match the optimism with which we greet a new year. As we hope for a fulsome and sweet year, filled with health and joy, our menu choices reflect these wishes.
For my maternal grandmother, Sarah Smoskovitz Friedman, who immigrated from the Russian Pale of Settlement as a late teen or young adult, this meant honey cake and teiglach, which were traditional for that heritage. The honey cake was a pretty straightforward loaf. Grandma’s teiglach, to my memory, were small spheres, about the size of garbanzo beans. After baking them, my grandmother would blend the spheres into a dark, cooked mix of honey, ginger and nuts. The honey coating was rich and sweet; the baked dough balls were almost rock hard. Jewish jawbreakers? Teiglach were probably the only thing my grandmother made that I didn’t love. (Does anyone still make teiglach anymore?)
My paternal grandmother, Helen Lorenczi Braunstein, brought her three children—ages three to seven—to the new world from a village in Transylvania, the Hungarian-speaking region of Romania. Her signature baked goods included tejeskalacs, a dairy challah characteristic of her Hungarian Jewish origins. Grandma’s tejeskalacs was legendary. It was made of a yeast dough, rich with the skins from the top of cooked milk (presumably, home-pasteurized) and baked in a tube pan. While not specific for Rosh Hashanah, this cake meets all the requirements: round, sweet and delicious.
We have many recipes for our family’s traditional foods because my mother determined to preserve our culinary heritage. She would follow her mother and mother-in-law around the kitchen, sliding measuring cups and spoons beneath their hands at the critical moment — just before they added a pinch of this or palmful of that into the bowl.
The one recipe we don’t have is the one for tejeskalacs. It was only after decades of hearing the term that I recently learned how to spell it. My father, himself an excellent if untraditional cook, spent years trying to recreate it, but he was never able to do so to his satisfaction. I’d like to take up the challenge, but since my father is eight years deceased, I have no means to validate success.
One year, a New York Times recipe for Rosh Hashanah Jam Cake caught my eye. The recipe, hailing from the southern US, is chock-full of pecans and warm spices and rich with buttermilk and blackberry preserves. Typically for me, I modified the ingredients right from the start. I’ve never used the nuts, I vary the preserves depending on what I have on hand (e.g., raspberry + apricot), and I use egg substitute in lieu of the in-the-shell variety. Still, this one recipe has become a family favorite.
Initially, I baked the jam cake as directed in a full-sized bundt pan, but it does make a lot of cake! Now I typically bake a half-recipe in mini-muffin pans, which are just the right size for a round, sweet treat. Not incidentally, these are moist enough so that when cooled, they ship very well when I send them to my offspring who no longer lives at home —with ample supply for appreciative roommates.
And then there’s challah. For the New Year, we abandon the loaf shape and bake round challahs. My mother’s challah recipe includes instructions for when to add raisins to make the bread extra sweet for the New Year. Baked just before Rosh Hashanah, one batch yields enough challahs to hold us through the High-Holiday season.
At some point, we began to make date syrup into which to dip the Rosh Hashanah apples and to smear on the challah. It’s a simple recipe. You soak Israeli medjool dates in hot water. Then you remove the pits and smoosh the rest of the fruit (by hand or food processor) as you dribble in hot water to desired thinness.
More recently, I’ve been able to purchase 100% silan from Israel. Silan is date syrup and it, rather than bee’s honey, is likely the original dvash (honey) referred to in the Bible when the promised land (Canaan) is called the “land of milk and honey.” To my tastebuds, silan has much more flavor than most honeys and invokes ties to ancient and modern lands.
My one innovation in 2022, the Hebrew year 5783, was to use silan instead of honey and, oh my, I’m keeping that change! The challah dough took on a tan, whole wheat tone and an extra richness that I can only hope will add to the richness and fullness of our upcoming years.