Serve Up Something Different in 5765

Food is the centerpiece of every Jewish holiday. For Rosh Hashanah especially, our traditional foods are a kind of ritualistic prayer where we ask that the coming year be better than the last. During a time when are lives are weighed and measured, we dip the apple in honey and eat the head of a fish (or broiled cow tongue in certain Sephardic households) to ask for the next year to be sweet and prosperous. Every Rosh Hashanah you probably expect your mom’s famous roast, or the traditional honey cake, but why not make this year about trying new recipes with similar flavors. Sweet is the theme for this season and new cookbooks are varying the holiday fare by borrowing from other culinary cultures and serving up some traditional favorites with a twist. Before you gather around your table this year, check out these latest cookbook offerings and surprise your family and guests with something a little bit different.

It’s so easy to refer time and again to the family recipe book to create your Yom Tov menu, but it’s more exciting to bring other culinary traditions to your holiday table. Dispersed across the globe for centuries, Jews have adopted much of the cuisine of their host countries and incorporated local and available ingredients. Jewish cookbook queen, Joan Nathan, in her book, "Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Schoken, $29.95), has updated the recipes from her two classic books, 1982’s "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and 1997’s "The Jewish Holiday Baker," and invites you to prepare classic dishes from Jewish households all over the globe, making this year’s holiday a cross-cultural feast.

Right before the High Holidays, the bakery is always the last place you want to be shopping. This year, instead of taking a number and waiting in an endless line, opt for the simple pleasure of making your own challah. In her book, Nathan includes an authentic Moroccan family recipe for Pain Petri (challah) to spice up your holiday table.

For the main course, go with Persian Fesenjan, a chicken stew made with walnuts and pomegranates — another fruit traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the meal with all of the other symbolic foods. The many seeds of the pomegranate are a sign of fertility, and serving an entrée that incorporates its juice is an original way to further indulge in the seasonal fruit.

Pain Petri (Moroccan Challah)

Note: You can either make this by hand or using a food processor.

7-8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs plus 1 yolk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1 1/2 scant tablespoons (1 1/2 packages) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

Place 7 cups of flour in a huge bowl. Make a well in the center and place the sugar, three eggs, 1/3 cup of oil, salt and sesame and anise seeds in the well. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then add it to the well.

Using your hands, gradually work in the flour with the ingredients in the well. Add more flour as needed. When a medium-stiff dough is formed, knead on a wooden board for about 20 minutes.

Form the dough into a ball, turn it in a greased bowl to coat the surface and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes, or until doubled in size. Punch down and knead once more. Divide the dough into five pieces. Either shape each into a round ball or make a long piece of it and twist it into a spiral with the end of the dough at the high point in the center. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Remove the dough to the cookie sheet. Brush with the remaining egg yolk mixed with the tablespoon of oil and bake for 35-45 minutes.

Persian Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew)

One 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups walnuts, ground

1/3 cup hot water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons sugar

Brown the chicken in the oil and remove to drain on a paper towel. Brown the chopped onion in the same oil.

In another pan, brown the walnuts, stirring constantly, without using any shortening. When brown, add the onion. Then slowly add the hot water so that the mixture does not stick. It should not be too liquid — more like a paste. Then add the lemon juice, pomegranate juice, tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and sugar, stirring with a spoon. When well-mixed, add the chicken.

Bring the mixture just to the point of boiling (not a fast boil). Decrease to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the chicken is very tender, about 45 minutes. If the sauce is not thick enough, remove the chicken and boil the liquid down until the desired thickness is reached, stirring as it cooks.

For a holiday menu rich in fruit and vegetables, a vegetarian cookbook is a great source to draw from on Rosh Hashanah when on the hunt for new recipes. Try a soup with sweet fruits and vegetables to change up the first course. Vegetarian cookbook veteran Nava Atlas, in her new book "The Vegetarian Family Cookbook" (Broadway, $17.95), offers tasty recipes for the die-hard vegetarian or for anyone looking to enrich their diet with more fruits and vegetables. With the plethora of junk food at our fingertips, it is more tempting to reach for potato chips than carrot sticks to satisfy hunger. Inspired by a lack of healthy food choices for adults and children, Atlas compiled a cornucopia of wholesome meals and snacks for even the pickiest eaters. Her Creamy Butternut Squash and Apple Soup is a great starter for the Rosh Hashanah feast, or a fabulous meal by itself when opting for a lighter lunch after days of endless holiday eating.

Creamy Butternut Squash

and Apple Soup

1 large butternut squash

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1 large red onion, chopped

4 cups peeled, diced apple, any cooking variety

4 cups prepared vegetable broth, or 4 cups water with 1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 cups low-fat milk, rice milk, or soy milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Halve the squash lengthwise with a sharp knife and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place cut side up in a shallow baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Or, if you’d like a more roasted flavor, simply brush the squash halves with a little olive oil and leave uncovered. Either way, bake for 45-50 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until golden, eight to 10 minutes.

Add the apples, broth and spices. Bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer gently until the apples are soft, about 10 minutes.

In a food processor, puree the squash with 1/2 cup of the milk until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

Transfer the apple-onion mixture to the food processor and puree until completely smooth. Return to the soup pot and add the squash puree; stir together. Add the remaining milk, using a bit more if the puree is too thick.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cook over low heat until well heated through, five to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once or let the soup stand off the heat for one to two hours, then heat through as needed before serving.

Serves six.

Honey cake is a great way to end the meal, but Lise Stern’s "How To Keep Kosher" (Morrow, $24.95) offers a great variation you might want to serve after a light pareve or dairy lunch. The sponge honey cake is a tradition not to be forgotten, but Stern livens it up hers with some honey frosting and tops it with caramelized apples. Her creation is one of the many kosher recipes she features in her book which is primarily meant to educate and excite her readers about the fundamentals of kashrut, its origins and modern-day practices.

Honey Layer Cake With

Caramelized Apples

1 large egg

1 cup honey

1 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Oil for the pans

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray or lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

Combine the egg, honey, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until well blended.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a sifter. Sift half the flour into the honey mixture. On low speed, blend until fully incorporated. Sift in the remaining flour and blend in until smooth.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, until pale gold in color and a tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then remove and cool on racks.

When fully cool, spread Honey Cream Frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and on the top of the cake (not on the sides). To serve, slice into wedges and put on individual plates. Top each slice with a spoonful of Caramelized Apples (see recipe below).

Makes 12 servings.

Honey Cream Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature

Pinch salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Cream together the cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth, using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. Blend in the honey, then the confectioners’ sugar. The frosting should be of an easily spreadable consistency. If it seems too thin, add additional sifted confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Caramelized Apples

2 tablespoons salted butter

3 apples (preferably pink lady or gala), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add the apples and sauté for two minutes. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat, and simmer over low heat for five to 10 minutes, until the apples are softened but still hold their shape. Serve warm; the compote may be reheated.

If the thought of slicing into a rich cake is a bit unbearable after a long meal, opt instead to prepare a helping of Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits. Former actress and neophyte cookbook author Pamela Hensley Vincent compiles treasured family recipes in her new scrapbook cookbook, "The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook" (Overlook Press, $24.95). So much of our history is in our culinary heritage and Vincent offers a glimpse into the lives of her immediate family and the recipes for which they were famous. Yetta’s — short for Henrietta, Vincent’s maternal grandmother — stewed fruit is a light desert that fits neatly into the sweet holiday theme.

Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits

4 to 6 peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered

12 plums, pitted and quartered

12 apricots, pitted and quartered

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed

Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 limes)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup dark rum

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Put the peaches, plums and apricots into a pot. Add the cherries (whole & un-pitted). Add the water, lemon or lime juice, brown sugar, rum and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool. Then pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge.

Yields four to six cups.

Educating Rita

Rita Milos Brownstein, author “Jewish Weddings” (Simon &
Schuster, 2002) said she wishes she had known about yichud before she was

Brownstein, 50, cited yichud — the time after the ceremony
that affords the bride and groom some privacy to share their first moments as a
married couple — as one of the traditions she learned about while researching
her book that she would have enjoyed at her own wedding some 20 years ago.

“Nobody told me about it,” she said.

“There are so many beautiful wedding customs and traditions
that many people don’t know about. I wanted to introduce them so people would
incorporate them in their own weddings.”

“Jewish Weddings,” Brownstein’s second book, combines the
visual appeal of a coffee-table book with helpful hints and important
information about Jewish wedding traditions as well as practical tips for
choosing shower themes, invitations, favors and more.

For example, she explains Jewish concepts including aufruf
(when the groom is called to the Torah for an aliyah, representing his
commitment to Torah as a married man); ketubot (marriage contracts); and sheva brachot
(seven nights of parties thrown for the couple following the wedding).

One section of the book contains “How We Met” vignettes, in
which Brownstein even shares her beshert story — the moment she knew she had
met her intended.

Another section details real-life weddings, complete with

A graphic designer by day for the Jewish Federation of
Greater Hartford (and previously for such publications as House Beautiful and
Good Housekeeping), Brownstein spent about a year writing the book in her free

Understandably conscientious about design, Brownstein
designed the entire book and had copy writer Donna Wolf Koplowitz polish the

The author lives in Simsbury, Conn., with her husband,
Michael, daughter Ariel, 17, and son, Ben, 14. Judaism plays a “pretty major
role” in their lives, Brownstein said, explaining that it helps her make daily
choices about business dealings, what to eat and how to treat others.

She started learning more about her religion 10 years ago.

“The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn,” she said.

Her Jewish learning led her to write her first book, “Jewish
Holiday Style” (Simon & Schuster, 1999), for which she combined her
background in magazine publishing and her new observance.

Now Brownstein has found a new way to express her love of
Judaism: She is starting a line of menorahs, kiddush cups and other items to be
sold in Judaica stores. Â

Students Spread Light in Ukraine

Osik Akselrud got a little help from his friends in staging a recent workshop designed to teach students to teach others about the history and traditions of Chanukah.

That’s because the head of the Hillel office responsible for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova was able to use, as instructors and assistants, students who’d already completed the first two installments of the program.

"We had two instructors from Hillel in Israel, as well as the Hillel students who’d gone through the first and second generations of seminars — and they know everything," he said. "I say, ‘Hey, you guys have become professional Jews.’"

About 140 students took part in the weeklong workshop that wrapped up Nov. 10.

They came by train to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev from cities across the country — Lvov, Odessa, Kharkov, Simferopol and Sevastopol — as well as from Minsk, Belarus, and Kishinev, Moldova. And it’s to those regional Hillel centers they’ll return to pass along what they’ve learned to their fellow Hillel members and then out to Jews in communities across the three countries.

Speaking at Kiev’s Sunflower Community Center after the seminar, Akselrud said such education is sorely needed. He said that despite the efforts of the past decade, following the break up of the Soviet Union, more time is required to make up for the 70 years of suppression that succeeded in alienating most Jews from their culture and religion.

"Only about 15 percent of Jews are involved in Jewish community programs," he said. "Sunflower has about 400 or 500 regular visitors, but there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews living in Kiev."

Hillel is banking on a combination of education and outreach to increase those numbers. It is using a hands-on approach to education to get the message across.

The Chanukah seminar opened in a traditional way, with a song performed by instructors from each regional Hillel office. That was followed by presentations by the regional groups — through songs, dances or performances.

First-time participants were taught the Chanukah and Israeli songs that would be sung together throughout the week. The following days followed a similar pattern — a combination of learning and fun.

"Our seminars are not only religious but also holiday-oriented for people who’ve lost their traditions," said Yulia Belilovska, the seminar’s coordinator. "The idea is to provide the education and, after that, if some want to go to synagogue, they can."

In a novel approach to learning about Chanukah, Hillel also arranged public relations and advertising training for the students. Belilovska explained that the idea was to get the students thinking about imaginative ways to present the meaning and traditions of Chanukah and how to attract community members to attend workshops on the topic. Half the group focused on video presentations, and the other half on dramatic presentations.

"One group presented a commercial containing ‘positive and negative PR,’" Belilovska said. "One girl explained that candles should be lit during Chanukah because they’re beautiful, amazing, a miracle and a good tradition, while one boy countered by saying, ‘Yes, but on Chanukah there are a lot of house fires.’" The positive argument won the day.

Dennis Bainkovsky said he felt like a winner, too. The 21-year-old economics student at the International Solomon University in Kiev was attending his third Chanukah seminar but serving as an instructor for the first time. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to teach others who’d taught him previously.

"The most important part of the seminar for me was acting as a madrich. I felt like a leader," he said, using the Hebrew word for guide or counselor. "I was helping teach some students who’d taught me at other seminars in the past — and while that was difficult, I was ready, and it worked out well."

His schoolmate at Solomon University, 19-year-old Yevgenia Soloviyova, was also attending her third Chanukah seminar. But her experience of Chanukah goes well beyond that, since she also grew up as an active Jew in her native city of Khmelnitski.

She said she enjoyed the opportunity to share her knowledge with the approximately 70 percent of the seminar participants who were learning the details of Chanukah for the first time. She said it was interesting to compare and contrast the styles and attitudes of various Hillel members.

"The Hillel organizations are a little different and have different feelings of spirit," she said. "For example, the group from Kishinev seemed to be a little more religious," while in "Kiev, we have our own place and maybe consider ourselves to be a little more independent."

But with completion of the seminar, it will be up to the participants to pass on what they’ve learned. That is done with workshops within their regional Hillel organizations. Then with the start of Chanukah, they fan out to communities in their regions and beyond.

Members of the Kiev Hillel, for instance, will travel to Hesed community centers around the region, including the city of Zhitomir, before heading farther west to major centers like Ivano-Frankivsk.

"It can be challenging when you’ve got a mixed group of older people and children and have to find a way to keep them all interested and entertained," Soloviyova said. "But sometimes, it’s great where there are older people who remember what Chanukah was like during their childhood and want to tell you about it."

Soloviyova said enlightenment can also work both ways — as was the case when Kiev Hillel traveled to the western border city of Uzhgorod last year.

"We met a group of younger people who were telling us that life wasn’t very interesting for them, because they didn’t know what kinds of things they could do together in their community," she said. "So, of course, we told them all about what we do in Hillel and the programs we’re involved in."

It is just such interaction, education and growth that Akselrud said the Chanukah seminar was designed to encourage. He said that makes the efforts and the $20,000 cost of the initiative — funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — worth it.

"For me, the most important part of the seminar was that I saw many, many new faces," he said. "And that means more students involved in Jewish life — and more potential."

Christmas Takes

As a young Jewish student in the ’60s, Robin Siegal believed that Chanukah was basically ignored in the public schools she attended, which included Hamilton High School. "It was like there was this big birthday party for Jesus, and I wasn’t invited," remembered the Beverlywood resident, now the mother of three.

With two of her children now attending Hamilton and her third at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), Siegal is relieved to see acknowledgment of diversity within the Los Angeles public school system.

While religion is not a part of public school curriculum the way it is in a parochial schools, these days most schools acknowledge the various winter holidays like Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Often, holiday traditions are incorporated into lesson plans. But does Chanukah get equal billing?

"I don’t believe we favor either Chanukah or Christmas," said Jennifer Noblett, principal of Hawthorne School in the Beverly Hills Unified School District. "We try to celebrate everyone’s diversity, customs and traditions, because sometimes family traditions aren’t really related to religious affiliation."

At Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Brentwood, there are no Christmas trees or menorahs adorning the walls at holiday time. "We just don’t do those things," said principal Teresa Riddle. She said some of the administrative offices may have winter displays, but nothing that blatantly promotes any holiday.

Like many other Los Angeles schools, Revere students will perform in a winter musical with Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa music. The Christmas tunes, Riddle said, will consist mostly of "nonsectarian songs about winter and snowmen."

Publicist Carol Eisner, whose three children are among students at LACES and Hamilton, has also noticed changes in cultural acceptance since her school days.

"There’s so much more openness about being Jewish in a nonsectarian environment," said Eisner, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. "Before, it was like you’re a Jew singing Christmas songs, and that’s how it’s going to be."

"Now the word ‘holiday’ is pervasive," she said. "It’s a general word that includes everybody."

Instead of calling the late-December extended vacation a "Christmas break," many schools call it "winter break" or "winter recess."

As a public school advocate, Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple and the Progressive Jewish Alliance agreed that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) appears to respect diversity now more than ever. However, he suggested that Jewish parents check with their children and remind them of the significance of their roots.

"The first step is to make sure that your children understand the deeper meaning of the holiday of Chanukah and not just the commercial aspects that compete with Christmas," Dworkin said. "Also, in a system [as large as LAUSD] … you can’t safeguard against every comment or every incident."

Siegal, a social worker, believes that educating her children about Chanukah also means expressing the realities of American society. "Our culture is not balanced and [as Jews], we’re definitely the minority," she said.

Siegal does not expect public schools to give Chanukah "equal time." In addition, she believes that the predominately gentile public school community should not be responsible for teaching her children about Judaism. Her solution is to supplement her children’s education by sending them to Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am.

Still, Susan Kogan, the assistant principal at Third Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, said her school believes it is important to teach the children about holidays from a cultural, rather than religious perspective. "Several of our non-Jewish teachers actually make potato pancakes for the kids on Chanukah," she said.