In my food-obsessed family, people base their Jewish holiday preferences on what is served for dinner. One of my daughters looks forward to Hanukkah all year long, not for the gifts but for my husband's superb potato latkes. The other one began to take an interest in celebrating Shavuot when she learned that the festivities might include cheese blintzes. Passover is a big favorite with my parents, who fight each other for the gefilte fish that the grandchildren are too young to appreciate. (Yom Kippur, with its daylong fast, isn't at the top of anyone's list.)
As a lifelong sugar fiend and former pastry chef, I've always been fond of Rosh Hashanah, during which sweetened dishes symbolize future happiness. Honey, symbolic also of good living and wealth, is the sweetener of choice during the holiday. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, which this year begins at sundown Sept. 28, we dip challah in honey before saying a blessing over the bread. Apples dipped in honey accompany a prayer asking God for a sweet New Year.
There are dozens if not hundreds of ways to incorporate honey into a Rosh Hashanah dinner. This year, I'll welcome everyone with a batch of honey-sweetened pomegranate spritzers (the pomegranate is itself a traditional Rosh Hashanah food, often eaten with the hope that good deeds will be as plentiful during the New Year as pomegranate seeds). A honey and cider vinegar dressing will balance the bite of baby spinach in a simple salad.
In small quantities, honey gives main dishes such as glazed salmon, lamb tzimmes and slow-cooked brisket a hint of caramel to balance their savory richness. I'm not sure yet which recipe I'll choose. Fish is a traditional symbol of fertility at a Rosh Hashanah meal, but the Middle Eastern flavors of the lamb would remind my family of its Sephardic roots, and the brisket is just so good.
I've already made my decision about dessert. Beer-battered and fried apple slices drizzled with honey are quick and delicious, plus they recall the honey-dipped apples with which the Rosh Hashanah meal begins.
When choosing honey, I reserve my best jars for the recipes in which its flavor really counts. The lovely floral notes of acacia, orange blossom or lavender in the best honey enhance a dish like the fried apples, where the honey is the first thing you taste. When cooked in dishes such as the salmon, lamb or brisket, the subtle flavor of an expensive artisanal honey will be lost, so it's fine to go with a supermarket brand in those cases.
Garnish each glass with a lemon twist. For a tipsy variation, add a cup of vodka to the pomegranate mixture before pouring.
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 cups pomegranate juice
2 cups seltzer
1. Place honey in a large microwave-safe measuring cup and microwave on high for 10 to 20 seconds to warm (do not boil).
2. Whisk in lemon juice and pomegranate juice and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
3. Fill 8 glasses with ice. Pour some of the pomegranate mixture into each glass to fill 3/4 of the way. Top each glass with some seltzer. Serve immediately. Makes 8 drinks.
APPLE FRITTERS DRIZZLED WITH HONEY
Lager-style beer works well in this recipe, and is generally considered kosher (if you want to use a certified kosher beer, try Schmaltz Brewing Company's Genesis Ale, stocked at many local markets during Jewish holidays).
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup lager-style beer, chilled
2 large apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 16 (1/4-inch) slices
Honey for drizzling
1. Heat an inch of vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
2. Whisk the flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and beer together in a medium mixing bowl.
3. Put 8 of the apple slices in the bowl and toss to coat with the batter. Lift them with a slotted spoon or spatula, one at a time, from the bowl, letting any excess batter drip back into the bowl, and put them in the hot oil.
4. Fry the slices, turning them once, until golden brown on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes total. Use a clean slotted spoon to transfer the fried slices to the baking sheet to drain. Repeat with the remaining slices. Let the fried apples rest on the baking sheet for a minute or two, transfer to a platter, drizzle with honey and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
SPINACH AND APPLE SALAD WITH HONEY-CIDER DRESSING
The Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating "new fruit," meaning fruit that has just come into season but has not yet been eaten, is a good excuse to incorporate local apples into the holiday meal.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon plus
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (5-ounce) box baby spinach
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and sliced into matchsticks
1. Whisk together oil, vinegar, honey, thyme and salt in a small bowl.
2. Combine spinach and apples in a large salad bowl, toss with dressing, and serve. Makes 8 servings.
LAMB TZIMMES WITH APRICOTS AND HONEY
There may be as many versions of tzimmes, a stew of sweetened vegetables, fruits and/or meat served on Rosh Hashanah, as there are Jewish households on Long Island. This sweet-and-savory version includes Eastern Mediterranean ingredients and spices popular in Sephardic cooking.
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes
Ground black pepper
2 medium onions, sliced
1 cup water
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/2 cups dried apricots
2 tablespoons honey
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
6 cups plain cooked couscous
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Remove to a plate.
2. Add onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Return lamb to pot along with water, cumin, ginger and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat down, and simmer until lamb is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. (Lamb and sauce can be transferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 2 days at this point; skim congealed fat from sauce before gently reheating and proceeding).
3. Stir in apricots, honey and chickpeas, and heat through. Adjust seasonings. Spoon over couscous and sprinkle with cilantro before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
HONEY- AND ORANGE-GLAZED SALMON FILETS
Substitute 1 1/2-inch-thick cod fillets for the salmon if you'd like.
3/4 cup honey
6 tablespoons orange juice
6 salmon fillets (6 ounces each)
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1. Adjust oven rack to upper-third position and preheat oven to 500 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Combine honey and orange juice in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, lower heat, and simmer until syrupy and thick, about 5 minutes.
3. Arrange salmon fillets, skin side down, on baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 5 minutes, brush with about half of the glaze and continue to bake until fish is baked through, another 5 minutes. Brush with remaining glaze, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
You can make this brisket up to 3 days in advance. Remove the meat from the pot and wrap tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet in the refrigerator. Separate the gravy and onions in two different airtight containers and chill. Reheat the meat in a 300-degree oven for an hour or so before dinner. Skim the congealed fat from the gravy, recombine with the onions and gently reheat in a pot on top of the stove.
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 (4-pound) center cut beef brisket
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
4 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1. Combine salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary in a small bowl. Rub brisket on both sides with mixture and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Add brisket and brown on all sides, about 7 minutes total. Remove and set aside.
3. Pour off any fat from pan and add wine and water. Bring to a boil. Whisk in honey and mustard. Return meat to pan, Arrange onions and garlic on top of meat, cover, and transfer to oven. Bake for 1 hour.
4. Remove cover, turn brisket over so it is on top of onions, and continue to cook, uncovered, another hour, stirring onions once or twice so they brown evenly. Cover and cook for another hour.
5. Remove meat from pan and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Remove onions to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Strain grease from gravy. Slice brisket and serve with onions and gravy on the side. Makes 6 to 8 servings.