What is your favorite Jewish holiday? Can you decide? To me, the decision seems akin to choosing my favorite relative, my favorite food — impossible! — or my favorite month of the year.
When I was a kid, besides Passover, which I loved but didn’t really understand, my absolute favorite holiday was Purim, when the point seemed to be having fun: dressing in costumes and telling stories about an incredibly beautiful queen and her unbelievably intelligent uncle. There is a family photo of my sister and me wearing face-breaking grins and bee-yootiful costumes: she as the lovely queen Esther and I as the all-important white horse, in a white leotard with my hair in pigtails to represent ears.
Tu B’Shevat, another favorite, meant little in those years beyond the donation my parents sent with me to the synagogue to plant trees (which have, by now, become beautiful pine forests) in Israel and I forgot about the holiday almost before it began.
Lately, however, since we have been holding wonderful seders for the “New Year of the Trees,” I have developed an enduring love for a celebration that recognizes the encompassing role that trees have in our lives.
However, all other holidays and their lovely memories considered, I secretly hold Sukkot in a special place in my heart. Because food is my life, autumn and harvest have brought intoxicating pleasures since I’ve been seriously cooking: the plethora of colors and flavors of vegetables found in late tomatoes, peppers, corn and eggplants. A hundred squashes and a thousand shapes of pumpkins have always given me a particularly acute culinary thrill.
The unparalleled fragrances of basil, marjoram, mint, lavender and rose mix together in the waning but most glorious sunlight to lure us to grasp a final freshness in a symphony (or even a cacophony) of taste. Sukkot is the festival of harvest, when we are encouraged to live outside our houses with the plentitude of the harvest.
Each region has its own fall flavors and each family its own favorite dishes — we are encouraged to make what is most appropriate from the harvest in our region, given the traditions of our families. What could be more integrated and comforting — what could be more like home?
Let me share some of these recipes in hopes that you might try them and, more importantly, rediscover some of your own beloved dishes in your home “outside,” when you gather with family and friends in the sukkah this year. Here are two recipes I learned in Bordeaux when I had the opportunity to stay for an October week during one of the many French holidays that seem so capricious to workaholic Americans.
One uses my favorite fall fruit, quince, which is more fragrant than any apricot but only turns from puckery sourness to sweet when cooked. Here it’s simply coated in a dusting of sugar, surrounded by apples and pears and gently cooked in a casserole for two to three hours until the whole thing is turned out and can be cut like a cake. It is simply delicious!
(or Gateau aux Coings)
3 medium quinces, golden yellow and fragrant, peeled, cut in half, cored and sliced in 1/4” slices
3 new fall apples, peeled, cored and sliced as above
3 Bosc, D’Anjou or Comice pears, peeled, cored and slice as above
1 cup sugar, or as needed
Butter for greasing the mold
Set the oven at 300ş. Butter an ovenproof casserole about eight or nine inches across and three inches deep. Sprinkle the bottom with about 2 Tbs. of sugar. Place a single layer of quince slices on top of the sugar, sprinkle again with 2 to 3 Tbs. of sugar, place on a layer of sliced apples, then repeat the sugaring, lay on a layer of pears and sugar again. Repeat the whole process until all the fruit is used up.
Press down gently but firmly on the fruit, pressing evenly all the way around until the “cake” is about half its original height in the casserole. Cover the casserole lightly with foil and set in the middle of the oven.
Cook for 1-1/2 hours, turning every half hour. At two hours, remove the cover and continue to cook until the cake takes on a deep rosy color, about three hours in all. If the gateau seems dry at any time during the cooking, add a little apple or pear cider or water. When done, let the gateau cool and turn it out on a platter. Serve with ginger or vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, crčme fraiche or plain cream. So perfect for Sukkot!
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
The second recipe from Bordeaux, called “Milla” was the family fall festival recipe for the entire village I was visiting. As we drove around the village near St. Emillon, picking up a case or two of wine from the local vintner or dropping in to say hello to friends, everyone would ask “How is your Milla going?”
They would then open their own oven doors to show the progress of their gorgeous orange autumn delicacy, made with pumpkin and plump prunes. The cold air smelled like caramelizing pumpkin-sugar as we hurried home to put ours in the oven.
1 medium sugar (cooking) pumpkin, about 4 lbs., peeled, seeded and cut into large (3" x 3") pieces
2 oz. unsalted butter, plus 2 Tbs. for greasing the dish
1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the pumpkin
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
20 pitted prunes, soaked overnight then cooked until soft, and drained
2 medium apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
Melted butter for brushing the top of the Milla
Cook the pumpkin pieces in boiling, salted water to cover until completely soft. Drain well and, while still hot, mash together with the butter, the sugar (to taste) and the vanilla. A food processor works well for this step. Let cool, then beat in the eggs and flour, mixing well until smooth.
Butter a ceramic or other ovenproof dish, nine to 10 inches across and three or four inches high. Put half the pumpkin mixture into the dish and place the prunes in one layer in top. Layer on the remaining pumpkin, smooth well and arrange the apple slices attractively on top. Brush with butter and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake at 350ş for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, or until set in the middle and nicely golden brown and puffed on top. If the Milla doesn’t seem set after an hour (a clean knife inserted in the center will come out clean when set), turn the heat down to 325ş, cover lightly and continue to bake until done.
Milla can be served with dinner, after dinner or even re-warmed for breakfast. You may serve it with creams or sauces, but you might feel that you are slightly gilding the lily! Be well and warm in the sukkah and enjoy!
Yield: Serves 8 to 10