How many plates of apples and honey do I remember ! Flimsy paper plates, too fragile to hold the weight of all of those slices of apples. Sitting in the classrooms behind the synagogue on those chilly folding metal chairs, we would pass around that paper plate, balance it on one small hand while choosing one slick slice of apple, dip it in the golden gooey honey and proffer the plate to our neighbor. Concentrated on the paper plate as we were, ever-fearful that it would tip and flop over, visions of apples tumbling to the floor, the honey perched on the tip of our own slice would slither down our fingers, leaving a sweet sticky remembrance of this special New Year treat. Apple slices eaten, fingers licked, we would listen as our teacher explained the significance of the sweet apples and honey.
How many years of High Holiday services at the synagogue do I remember? Sitting between our parents in the Temple for the first part of the service then spending the rest of the morning in the tiny stretch of classrooms in the back for Children’s Services. The clunky old plastic accordion walls which separated the space into individual classrooms would be pushed back to create one long open room. A shortened religious service dotted with songs and stories, followed by games would be our welcome into the New Year. Folding tables would be set up, laden with a cold buffet, bagels and lox, tuna salad and cold drinks, cakes and cookies. We would each fill one of those thin paper plate and snuggle into a chilly metal chair and happily dig in. Then the apples and honey, slippery apple slices surrounding sticky puddles of fragrant honey amid shouts of L’Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!
It is tradition to welcome the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, with round, sweet foods which represent the wish for a round, sweet year to follow. The customary holiday Challah, a long braided loaf, is twisted into a circle, a round loaf for Rosh Hashanah. Already slightly sweet, sometimes made even more festive by the addition of ground almonds or plump raisins, slices of Challah will be passed around, chunks torn off and then dipped, yes, that’s right, into honey. We eat new fruits as well, fruits of the approaching season that we haven’t yet tasted, such as the pomegranate, in order to thank God for bringing us to this new season. And fish, the symbol of fertility and abundance, all things wished for the coming year. And apples, of course. Apples and honey to be eaten together as we pray for a round year sweet from beginning to end and on and on, a never-ending circle.
Honey and apples are, of course, the most well known traditional foods eaten on the Jewish New Year and not only eaten as is. They are baked into cakes, honey cakes and apple cakes galore – everyone seems to have his or her own family recipe! Yet honey, apples and other sweet things like raisins, prunes, dates, plums or other seasonally sweet foods, also flavor the savory dishes served during the New Year Meal. I often serve the sweet and savory Lamb with Honey, Almonds and Prunes, a Rosh Hashanah traditional dish served at Sephardic celebrations. Chicken baked with cinnamon and apples or a honey-coated baked chicken with preserved lemons, both Joan Nathan recipes, are stunning, savory sweet additions to the holiday table. My mother’s Sweet and Sour Brisket will be our newest holiday addition.
I pull out my collection of old cookbooks: home recipes gathered and shared by this community organization or that synagogue Sisterhood, recipes I turn to again and again when the Jewish holidays come around. I place them next to my new battery of cookbooks, Jayne Cohen, Claudia Roden and Joan Nathan, among others, and flip through each looking for something new to make to mark this special celebration, the beginning of the holiest days in the Jewish year. “Why make yet another honey cake?” I ask myself. “Or an apple cake, for that matter?” I try and make something new each year, out of the ordinary. And this year, although the idea of Honey Cake crossed my mind, I decided to bring it in another direction.
A baked custard. I found a recipe for Baked Custard in my favorite old community cookbook Abigail Serves, The Choicest Recipes Presented by Sisters of Abigail No. 3 United Order of True Sisters. Albany, New York, 1956. My Great Aunt Mae was chairman. This group did community service and raised money for such varied things as equipping the kitchen of the local YW and YMCA, isotope treatments for the indigent at Albany hospital, playing checkers with or writing letters for local veterans or organizing birthday parties for them. They set up and equipped a room for Cerebral Palsy patients at the hospital and raised money for a Warppler Machine at Albany’s Memorial Hospital.
The cookbook is a treasure, filled with fabulous and homey recipes from meat borscht and gefilte fish to spring lamb stew and lemon sole casserole with cream sauce. From Heavenly Chocolate Cupcakes to Lemon Chiffon Pie. I dug around and came across a recipe for Baked Custard with several variations. I chose Baked Honey Custard and knew I would serve them with Honey-Caramelized Apples.
For a round, sweet Happy New Year.
BAKED HONEY CUSTARD
3 large eggs
½ cup (125 ml) runny (liquid) honey
¼ tsp salt
3 cups (700 ml) milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Prepare 6 – 8 ramekins or oven-safe custard cups; place them in a baking pan that will hold water.
Place the 3 cups milk into a saucepan and gently (over low to medium heat) bring it just up to the boil. Immediately remove from the heat.
Whisk the 3 eggs in a medium to large bowl. Add the honey and salt and whisk briskly until well blended. Pour the scalded milk into the egg and honey mixture in a slow stream while whisking constantly. Once all of the milk has been blended in, stir in the vanilla.
Evenly divide between the custard cups which are already sitting on the baking pan – I find it easier to pour the liquid into a large measuring cup with a spout, which allows you to pour cleanly into the cups without making a mess. Dust the top of each custard with just a tiny pinch of nutmeg and place the baking pan in the preheated oven. Very carefully pour very hot water (tap water is fine) in the baking pan, around the custard cups, careful not to get any water in the custards.
Bake the custards for 40 – 50 minutes (the original recipe called for closer to 35 minutes for individual custard cups while mine baked closer to 50 minutes. Just check often.) The custards are done when set in the center – test by very gently touching the top of the custard or gently jiggling the pan. The will continue to firm up a bit when chilling.
When set, remove the pan from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Carefully lift each custard from the water bath and place on a cooling rack until cool enough to refrigerate. Cover each in plastic wrap and chill.
HONEY CARAMELIZED APPLES
I play the quantities by ear; just don’t leave the apples cooking unattended.
1 apple or more, depending upon whether you want to top the custards with more than a heaping tablespoon - I find one apple is good for about 4 custards
Butter or margarine
Cinnamon or nutmeg, optional
Whipped cream for serving, optional
Peel and core the apples and chop into small cubes. Heat a small amount of butter or margarine – about a teaspoon per apple – in a skillet and toss in the apple cubes. Cook, tossing often, until the apples are tender. Add small amount of water occasionally as the apple cooks; the water will steam off but will help “poach” the apples and keep them moist while not allowing them to brown.
Once the apples are fork tender, drizzle on honey, maybe ½ - 1 tablespoon per apple, depending upon the sweetness and the tanginess of the fruit. Continue to stir, adding more water as needed and desired. Add a tablespoon or 2 of rum to the fruit – if desired - as it is cooking, allowing the alcohol to burn away.
Once the apples are cooked as desired – taste and adjust the sweetness – scrape out of the skillet into a bowl to cool at least slightly before serving over the chilled Honey Custards. Top with a very light dusting of ground cinnamon or nutmeg and a bit of whipped cream.