Grown-up apples and honey for Rosh Hashana

September 21, 2011

Deena Prichep

A few years ago, I read an article attempting to parse the seemingly random trends in baby names. Sociologists tried to figure out why there now seem to be a glut of baby Isabellas, but nary a baby Lisa in sight. They pointed to numerous factors, but one that stuck out in my mind was the strong pull of the slight variation. Sometimes a name becomes so popular that it starts to feel a wee bit stale. However, make the smallest of tweaks, and the name sounds fresh again. Exit Madeleine, enter Madison. My daily world is food (as opposed to baby names), but I know just what they mean. Sometimes I crave the familiar flavors of tradition, but want a variation that satisfies my childhood memories while appealing to my grownup tastes. Exit the honey cake, enter the rosemary honey apple galette.

Next week is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. As with many cultures' New Year celebrations, there are meals of symbolic foods meant to give an auspicious start to the year ahead. The customs vary across Jewish communities. Some families eat stuffed dishes such as meat-filled vegetables or kreplach, a beloved wonton-like soup dumpling, to guarantee a coming year bursting with happiness. Challah, the ritual egg-enriched bread, is turned from the usual braided loaf into a round-shaped crown, or even shaped into ladders or birds to commemorate biblical verses. Whole fish are eaten, rather than fillets, to symbolize the "head" of the year. One of the most well-known traditions, however, is eating apples and honey.

This delicious practice is meant to invoke the sweetness of the year to come. Honey has long held symbolic meaning for the Jewish people. Some religious Jews cover the letters of the torah with honey when their children are learning to read them, to demonstrate the sweetness within. Many North Africans celebrate the end of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery, by eating pancakes doused in honey to represent the deliciousness of freedom. And because Rosh Hashana is the sweetest holiday in Jewish life, honey is abundant.

Honey cakes, often from long-treasured family recipes, are plentiful on Rosh Hashana. They can be simple or enhanced with warm spices, tea and the occasional shot of brandy. Apples and honey, in their most basic form, are found on most Jewish tables. Many of my sticky childhood holiday memories involve a bowl of MacIntoshes and a bear-shaped plastic squeeze bottle. But now that I (and my sweet tooth) have grown up, I'm looking to bring these traditional flavors into a more sophisticated dessert.

These recipes do the job. Apples aren't just sliced into browning wedges — they're shaved paper-thin and turned into a long-cooked terrine, used to make delicate Parisian-style cookies and fanned out across an elegant galette. And because it wouldn't be Rosh Hashana without honey, these apple desserts give honey equal billing: It sweetens the rosemary frangipane, a layer of almond cream under the galette. It also gives a delicious moistness to the apple terrine-topped honey gingerbread, lends a delicate note to the macarons' buttercream and rounds out the nutty depth of an almond semifreddo.

All of these desserts are an exercise in sophistication, bringing a touch of the pastry shop to your kitchen. And they're all lovely, using a host of surprising techniques and ingredients to play against the familiar sweet round notes of apples and honey. Whether you're looking for an updated way to ring in the New Year, or just looking for a delicious dessert, each recipe could start a whole new tradition.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.