Temple Beth Shalom, our neighbourhood synagogue, was a second home to our family. Not only did we walk through those large double doors twice a week for religious and Hebrew school and once a week – if not twice – for Shabbat and holiday services, but the synagogue also played a huge role in our family’s social life, from youth group throughout junior and senior high, spaghetti dinners and cinema nights, activities to raise money for charity to so many Purim carnivals, Hanukkah parties and meals under the Sukkah. My parents were as active, if not more so, than we; dad and mom were both heartily involved in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood respectively, mom was on the bowling team and dad ran Thursday night Bingo – including baking huge sheet cakes to bring along with him. Mom was, for many years, the principal of the religious school and if a handyman was needed for anything at all, they were sure to call dad. And that was only the start. For as long as I can remember, they were involved, in one way or another, in almost every activity, every decision at that synagogue. And we kids weren’t far behind.
As the Jewish High Holidays approach, I can’t but help thinking of the Synagogue. My memories of those long days at children’s services are stronger and sweeter than the ones of holiday meals at home. The High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), were spent in the tiny stretch of six classrooms behind the Temple’s main building. There were old, clunky accordion walls separating each class space from the next, and during High Holiday services, those walls would be pushed open to create one long room where we grade school kids would spend most of the day. A shortened religious service with explanations would be followed by games and songs, stories and, yes, lunch. Metal folding tables would be set up and laden with a cold buffet; all dressed in our holiday best, we would fill flimsy paper plates with fresh bagels and lox, tuna salad and fruit drinks, cakes and cookies and snuggle into a chilly metal chair, one of those folding chairs with a desktop attached, and happily dig in. And more flimsy paper plates would be passed around piled high with apple slices surrounding a gooey, sticky puddle of shimmering, golden honey. Little fingers scooping up a slippery apple slice and, over prayers for a “round, sweet year” we would dip the slice into the honey and, as fast as we could, push the sweet, juicy apple into our mouths before the honey could slither and drip down onto our laps.
We loved those days, those holidays with our friends at the Synagogue, coming out feeling jubilant, excited for the new start, energized by the significance of the day, the weight and joy of the services. And maybe afterwards going to spend the rest of the afternoon and the ceremonial meal at the home of one or another of our family friend’s. We would pop home to change out of our good clothes then join the others for more food, more apples and honey, more singing and more laughter. There was something so special about those hot Florida September days. A day off from school when all the others had to attend; special meals, special foods with special symbolic meaning: honey, the most well-known customary food eaten as is or baked into Honey cakes galore, symbolizing sweetness, eaten over prayers asking that the year ahead be sweet; new fruits, such as pomegranate, a fruit of the new, approaching season that we haven’t yet eaten this year, in order to thank God for bringing us to this new season; fish, the symbol of fertility and abundance; and apples. Apples and honey to be eaten together; apples for their roundness and honey for its sweetness, eaten together as we ask God to grant us a sweet year circling round from beginning to end. And Challah. Oh, yes, Challah, the same golden, slightly sweet egg-enriched braided bread that is served every Friday night! But for Rosh Hashanah, the dough is braided and shaped into a round loaf. Round…. And then symbolically, as is everything on the Jewish holiday table, dipped in honey to be eaten in the hope of a round, sweet year.
Raising my own sons, as there was no local synagogue, or there wasn’t always one, and no family close by, I had to create our own ceremonies and traditions. I would pull out each of my Jewish cookbooks, my Jewish catalogue and all the old books I owned when I was a kid that have, over the years, made the long voyage from Florida to France. And over the years and across the miles we have bought Yarmulkas and Seder plates, Kiddush cups and candleholders, Menorahs and even Hannukah cookie cutters, everything we could possibly need to celebrate each and every holiday. And as each holiday approached, the excitement grew as we began deciding how to celebrate, what to do, making lists of what needed to be purchased. And as a special meal and particular symbolic foods are the center of almost every Jewish holiday, our little family celebration focused almost completely on those meals.
The Jewish New Year always meant a glorious, joyful holiday meal. The boys and I would pull out all the stops to create the perfect celebration: white linen tablecloth and napkins, beautiful table settings, candles placed carefully in their candlesticks, all of my best, prettiest serving platters pulled out and dusted off. Wine and appetizers and a full meal. And of course, Rosh Hashanah meant something sweet or something tangy: either a North African holiday specialty of Lamb Tagine with prunes, almonds and honey or maybe Fish Balls in a Tangy Tomato Sauce. And a special Challah. Once we moved back to France, I had taken the habit of making two homemade Challahs – the tradition – every Friday for our Shabbat dinner. But Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, called out, nay, deserved something even more spectacular! And so I began the tradition of making Jayne Cohen’s Round Almond Challah.
This truly is a Challah special enough to see in the New Year with. As Jayne writes in her wonderful cookbook The Gefilte Variations, long my Rosh Hashanah companion, “this sumptuous, fragrant Challah, a gift from my friend, artist and playwright Linda Rathkopf, is extra-luscious with sweet ground almonds, which stand in for some of the flour.” I fell in love with this beautiful, delicate, rich loaf the first time I baked it all those years ago, and still do. With only a little preparation and the heating of the milk and butter, it is so easy to put together and so worth it! This is our family’s Rosh Hashanah tradition, helping us to ring in the new, sweet year.
I want to share this with Susan of Wild Yeast for her weekly all things yeast Yeastspotting!
JAYNE COHEN’S ALMOND CHALLAH
I made a few slight changes from Jayne Cohen’s recipe in The Gefilte Variations; and I made mine by hand rather than with a food processor as Jayne suggests.
2 ¾ oz (78 g) finely ground almonds (or you can grind whole blanched almonds yourself)
½ cup (100 g) sugar
2 tsps salt
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
½ oz (2 envelopes ¼ oz each)(15 g) active dry yeast
4 large egg yolks
5 cups (approximately 650 g) bread flour (I used French all-purpose flour), lightly spooned into the measuring cup and levelled off
16 Tbs (225 g) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp milk, for egg wash
About 2 Tbs sesame seeds or slivered blanched almonds
Whisk the ground almonds, sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast to the bowl, without mixing into the almond mixture.
Gently heat the milk to 100° - 110°F, warm to skin temperature, not hot. Pour the warm milk over the yeast and allow it to dissolve and proof until frothy, about 15 – 20 minutes.
Add the egg yolks and whisk to blend. Whisk in the tepid melted butter. Add 4 ½ cups of the flour, one cup at a time, whisking or stirring until blended after each addition (I used a whisk for the first 2 cups flour then used a wooden spoon). Pour the remaining ½ cup onto the work surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead quickly just to incorporate the ½ cup flour and the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.
Shape the dough into a ball and place in a clean, well-greased bowl, turning to coat the dough with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap then a kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, 3 – 4 hours.
Punch the dough down and divide it into 3 pieces, as equal in size and weight as possible. Press and roll each piece into a long rope, making sure that the three ropes are equal in length. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a large baking sheet and place the three dough ropes side by side on the parchement. Braid the ropes – start in the middle and braid one end out, then switch sides and, starting back in the middle, braid the other half out and towards you. Carefully form the braided dough into as tight a circle as possible, tucking under the six ends.
Cover once again with plastic wrap and allow to double in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Prepare the egg wash and brush the wash all over the dough, even down the sides and inside the folds. Sprinkle with the slivered almonds or the sesame seeds.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes until a deep golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool.