L'shanah tovah! Our favorite early local apple varieties--Pink Pearls, Gravensteins--have been in the markets for only a week or two, and already it's time to dunk them in honey.
Dipping apples in honey is a traditional way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins this year at sundown on Wednesday, Sept 4, and continues through Friday, Sept 6. The practice is meant to celebrate the coming of a sweet year, full of joy and prosperity. Challah, the egg bread typically served on Friday nights, is made richer and sweeter, often with raisins added, and shaped into a towering round rather than the usual oval or rectangular braid. It, too, is dipped in honey before the meal. At lunch and dinner, foods that are sour or bitter are avoided, replaced by savory dishes with a hint of sweetness.
For this year's holiday meals, I've found contemporary inspiration in The Modern Menu by Kim Kushner, a kosher private chef and cooking teacher. Kushner's palate comes with a cosmopolitan variety of influences, from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia and India, to reflect the way we eat now. After spending her childhood summers in Israel (her Moroccan-born, Israeli-raised mother was one of 10 siblings, so family meals were no small events), Ms. Kushner settled in Manhattan, trained professionally at the Institute of Culinary Education, and became a private chef and cooking teacher.
Instead of the old-fashioned, mostly Eastern and Central European-influenced standbys of Jewish-American cooking, Ms. Kushner offers lighter, brighter, and indeed more modern dishes. There's brisket, of course, but sauced with olive oil, beer, ketchup, and cranberry sauce, followed by pesto-crusted lamb chops, lemongrass halibut with cilantro and peanuts, curried cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate, cumin-spiced beet salad, and gelato "towers" layered with halvah and sorbet. If you don't keep kosher, you'll hardly notice anything out of the ordinary in this book, except, perhaps, the pronounced lack of bacon and the limited use of cheese, butter, and cream. (Pork and shellfish are forbidden by kosher dietary laws, which also proscribe mixing dairy and meat products in the same dish or at the same meal.)
The recipes are straightforward, healthy, and appealing, equally adaptable for both busy weeknights and holiday celebrations. Unfortunately, the layout and visual appeal of the book don't match up to the high quality of the recipes.
Rather than being divided into typical categories of appetizers, salads, entrees, and the like, the chapters are done menu by menu, with cute but unhelpful headings like "Clever," "Crisp," "Vibrant," and "Saucy." It actually took a close reading of the book to realize that each of these short chapters was actually a planned menu; good as they sound on their own, few of these big-flavor dishes seem ready to share real estate on the plate in a single meal. The "Modern" menu, for example, includes three dressed vegetable salads plus sesame-crusted Arctic char--what reads like a skinny-jeans ladies' lunch of three shared appetizers and one entree shorn of its deserved sides and starch. Meanwhile, "Saucy" veers from teriyaki-glazed sticky beef ribs and surimi-mango salad in wonton cups to a curried couscous salad and salsa-style tomatoes with cilantro and avocado. Global influences are great, but jamming too many into one meal can make for potluck confusion.
And then there are Andrew Zuckerman's photographs, shot in unadorned, often extreme close-up against a stark white background. Muddy color reproduction means page after page of dishes depicted in unappetizingly washed-out browns, dull greens and grayish yellows. Only the red dishes, featuring brilliantly colored beets or watermelon, look appealing.
You could see this one coming, couldn't you? The Bay Area's wholehearted adoption of all things gluten-free meets the Jewish love of baking, and the result is Nosh on This: Gluten-Free Baking from a Jewish-American Kitchen, by South Bay bloggers Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel. When a gluten-free book gets a glowing blurb from Marcy Goldman, the Canadian baker and author of my much-used favorite, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, even the non-gluten-intolerant should pay attention. These days, it's handy for all busy home bakers to have at least one decent gluten-free cookbook, since the demand and/or expectation of tasty gluten-free cupcakes (not to mention gluten-free pizza and yes, gluten-free beer) at every birthday party has risen dramatically.
This husband-and-wife team, who blog at Gluten-Free Canteen (she bakes and writes, he shoots the photographs), rely almost exclusively on their own Nosh all-purpose gluten-free flour mix, which they recommend be made from Authentic Foods' superfine-milled flours, in a proportion of two parts brown rice flour to one part each white rice flour and tapioca starch. For yeast breads, they avoid crumbling by mixing minimal amounts of xanthan gum, pectin, and guar gum with Expandex Modified Tapioca Starch to give "that nice bendy tear we all know and miss in many gluten-free breads." Otherwise, though, they keep the chemistry-set demands to a minimum: this is as close to regular, homey-kitchen baking as gluten-free gets.
True to its name, the book includes lots of typically Jewish treats, although you don't need to have been bat mitzvah'd to appreciate rugelach, challah, macaroons or mandelbrot. In between the honey cake and hamantaschen are plenty of familiar, everyday sweets and pastries--pies, fruit tarts, layer cakes, cupcakes, brownies, lemon bars, eclairs, even doughnuts (lots and lots of doughnuts). Those parents whose kids can't eat supermarket sweets should especially enjoy the recipes for homemade cookies inspired by Oreos, Mallomars, Stella D'oro Swiss Fudge Cookies, Fig Newtons, and more. And the tone is lively, fun, and just irreverent enough to make even infrequent bakers feel at home in the kitchen.
Recipe: Best Brisket
Reproduced with permission from The Modern Menu by Kim Kushner (Gefen Publishing House, 2013).
This is the best brisket I've tasted. Almost as great as its amazing flavor is that you can make it a month in advance and freeze it. So convenient! Note that you will need a roasting pan that can be used both on a stovetop and in the oven.
3 tbsp olive oil
1 5-lb first-cut brisket
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 medium yellow onions, sliced
1 12-ounce bottle beer
3/4 cup ketchup
1 14-oz can cranberry sauce
1/4 cup red wine
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Heat the olive oil in a large roasting pan over medium-high heat. Season the brisket generously with salt and pepper (don't be afraid to over-season). Sear the brisket in the pan until nicely browned on each side, about 4 minutes per side. Remove to a platter. Add the onions to the pan and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Place the brisket on the onions.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the beer, ketchup, cranberry sauce, and wine. Pour the mixture over the brisket in the pan and bring to a boil.
3. Cover the pan with foil and bake in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Carefully turn the brisket over using tongs. Continue baking, covered, for an additional 1 1/2 hours, until a fork easily pierces the brisket. Using tongs, transfer the brisket to a cutting board.
4. Place the roasting pan on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Bring the cooking juices to a boil and simmer until the liquid reduces to a thick, velvety sauce, about 10 minutes. Slice the brisket while still warm and serve with the sauce alongside.
Note: The brisket can be made 1 day in advance. To store, let brisket and sauce cool completely, then wrap meat in foil and refrigerate. Transfer sauce to a covered container and refrigerate. To serve, slice the brisket when it is cold to prevent it from falling apart. Arrange the slices in a large baking dish and pour the sauce over them. Cover with foil and reheat in a 300ºF oven for 40 minutes. The brisket, whole or sliced, and the sauce can also be frozen for up to 4 weeks.
Recipe: Pumpkin Honey Bread
Reproduced with permission from Nosh on This: Gluten Free Baking from a Jewish-American Kitchen, by Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel (The Experiment, 2013).
Pumpkin is a popular Rosh Hashanah fruit in other parts of the world, particularly in Northern Italy, and to honor that Sephardic tradition, this bread combines the best of both: honey and pumpkin. This recipe can be made as mini loaves that be given as hostess gifts or as one large loaf that would also make a fantastic breakfast bread.
Makes 5 mini loaves or 1 large loaf
Nonstick spray, for greasing.
2 cups (260 gms) Nosh AP GF flour (see note below)
3/4 cup (150 gms) sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated preferred
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper (2 turns of the grinder)
1/2 cup (125 gms) canned pure pumpkin puree
5 to 6 tbsp (125 gms) honey
1/2 cup (110 gms) canola oil
3 tbsp (50 gms) orange juice
2 extra-large eggs
1 tbsp (5 gms) orange or tangerine zest, freshly grated
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp orange extract
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease 5 mini loaf pans or one 8 1/2" by 4 1/2" loaf pan lightly with nonstick spray. Place pan(s) on baking sheet.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, honey, oil, orange juice, eggs, vanilla, and orange extract. Using a silicon spatula, add the wet ingredients to the dry, folding from the bottom just until no dry material remains. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan(s) filling evenly two-thirds full.
3. For mini loaf pans, bake 20 minutes and rotate the pans for even baking. Turn down the temperature to 325ºF and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until a toothpick comes out with dry crumbs. For a larger loaf, bake at 350ºF for 30 minutes and rotate the pan for even baking. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes more, or until a toothpick comes out with fairly dry crumbs and the edges are dark brown and crispy. Cool in the pan(s) on a rack for 5 minutes. Transfer the loaf or loaves to a rack to cool completely.
Note: To make 2 cups (260 gms) Nosh AP GF flour blend, whisk together 1 cup (130 gms) superfine brown rice flour, 1/2 cup (65 gms) superfine white rice flour, and 1/2 cup (65 gms) tapioca starch.