A cook sometimes reveals their secret: Rosh Hashanah cooking traditions

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, many in the community are busy inviting family and friends, cooking, preparing spiritually, and buying new clothes. For some, this is a chance to find inspiration from the past; not the biblical past, but the more recent past. What sources inspire the recipes we make every year? What smells do we invite into our homes that remind us of this special time of year and fill us with nostalgia?

The E-bulletin asked local community members from where their inspirations come:

Cindy Feingold told her story through text, pictures, and a video:

As a food blogger I am always looking for inspiration for new food combinations, flavours, and recipes. This mostly works out for me, except when it comes to cooking for my family at holiday times. There would be a revolt if I tried serving Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts Latkes on the first night of Chanukah. Trust me, I know. I speak from personal experience. 

People get funny about holiday traditions, and they don’t like you messing with them. Apple Caramel Cake is one of our family traditions for Rosh Hashanah. 

This Apple Caramel Cake recipe is from one of my most treasured, stained, and dog-eared cookbooks, “Dinah’s Cupboard Cook-Book.” Although this isn’t a Jewish cookbook, it’s the one I reach for every year at the High Holidays. This book was first published in 1986 and it stands the test of time. While it’s not being printed anymore, you can still find some used copies on Amazon

The Korean Barbecued Short Ribs (Miami Ribs) recipe, (page 56) is our go to marinade for Rosh Hashanah dinner. We always break the fast after Yom Kippur with Baked Brie (page 132) and Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes, Pine Nuts and Asiago (page 32).

My copy of the book was gifted to me by the author, Dinah Koo. I worked for Dinah, at her upscale take-out food shop, Dinah’s Cupboard in Toronto’s Yorkville area, after graduating from Culinary School. She demanded perfection and precision. She cooked with big flavours and was a master at presentation. I learned so much from her and am forever grateful to her for passing so much knowledge on to me.

It was many years later that I discovered that the base Apple Cake recipe was from the Second Helpings Cookbook. Dinah’s twist on the Second Helpings classic was to soak the just-baked cake in a caramel sauce. That was Dinah’s genius, taking the everyday and elevating it into something special. 

As soon as the apple cake comes out of the oven, poke holes all over the cake and pour on caramel sauce so it has an opportunity to soak in. This is a moist, dense, intensely flavourful cake. Watch how it all comes together in the accompanying video.

Tina-Ahava Azarin is an Iranian Jew and has a very different approach to cooking for Rosh Hashanah: In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, our daily conversations about food always intensify. The recipes we prepare for the Rosh Hashanah Seder and the dishes we set on our colourful table for gatherings are all part of a cherished tradition passed down from generation to generation orally and were always the same.

As Iranian Jews, before we dig into our delicious meal of Persian stews, crispy rice, and other mouthwatering foods, we sit down for a formal seder. The seder consists of nine simanim represented by foods that reflect what we want from God in the year to come. Our seder table features the following components:

1- Cooked Beets
7-Black-eyed Peas
8-Tareh (a type of vegetable similar to leeks)
9- Cow Tongue

When my mother cooked in our kitchen, there were no books, no notes, no instruction to rescue her from Rosh Hashanah kitchen crises. She entered that space empty-handed and unflinchingly, wielding a cool confidence and dexterity seemingly exclusive to home cooks. She relied solely on the knowledge stored in her mind.

As a young girl in the kitchen, when I asked her how much salt I should add to a boiling pot of water for preparing Persian rice, there was no precise answer. She would pour a handful of salt into her palm, study it intently, and declare, “Look, this is how much.” For her, the passing of knowledge occurred not through writing but through doing. Her eyes served as measuring cups and scales for all the ingredients.

Initially, this method puzzled me. However, as I grew older, I found myself embracing the same approach and passing it down to my daughter. It was then that I realized my true reference point lay not in written instructions but in the memories and practices that had been handed down from previous generations.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in preserving and documenting traditional Persian recipes through cookbooks, websites, and cooking classes. Nevertheless, the oral tradition remains a fundamental aspect of Persian cooking, ensuring the continuity of this rich culinary heritage from one generation to the next.
Ruchama Uzan is the founder and owner of A Dashing Pinch/The Village Café located in the Soloway JCC and is our community’s kosher social enterprise. 

My personal favourite cookbook is the Gatherings Cookbook published by the parent association of Netivot Hatorah in Toronto.  It was a wedding gift from a close friend. Our family celebrations include a lot of traditional holiday favourites from this cookbook.  

However, I am an adventurous cook and often experiment and try new variations from the Gatherings Cookbook or recipes or family favourites that have been passed down. 

Truth be told, family recipes are our most treasured above cookbook recipes, and those are exclusively handwritten in a special book. Many recipes in this special book are food stained from years of use.  For a recipe to make it into the treasured handwritten book, typically it would be one that a family member has committed to memory and one that the kids want to try to recreate. In the picture Na’ama and Nadav are making Grandma’s sweet streusel challah, a Rosh Hashanah requirement.

They'll call their grandparents for the exact details and put it in the sentimental book. While the art of the oral tradition of recipes may be lost in this process, it brings the kids into the tradition of cooking with family and honouring our history and future by keeping these recipes alive for future generations to enjoy. 

When opening A Dashing Pinch, I wanted to incorporate my passion for never settling with the status quo, even in a recipe.  We are “A Dashing Pinch” because we are creative people that are always striving and working towards new possibilities and experiences.  Beyond the recipe, our company offers a unique and personal experience for our clients and customers.  This socially conscious enterprise is a community where people of all abilities and skills are respected, accepted, and supported.  Our catering menus are created with a ‘dash and pinch’ of exciting flavours and creativity.

David Smith owner of Creative Kosher Catering also relies on family recipes passed down through the generations. Through his catering, our community has come to love many of his family recipes, and so he has decided to create a cookbook based on them so they can be made and loved by many more for years to come. This will be a welcomed addition to any kitchen and something unique for our community!

Alyce Baker is a former Ottawa Jewish Bulletin food writer and gives us a history of her favourite sources:

When I was first married, the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth Shalom gifted me a copy of A Treasure to My Daughter. This was my first go to book for holiday recipes. It contained traditional recipes passed down from generations.

Then in the 70’s Norene Gilletz came on the scene and Second Helpings Please became a bible not just for holidays but everyday cooking. Norene went on to publish several other books for use with a food processor and then a microwave. She adapted recipes to be used with these appliances as they became go-to items in modern-day kitchens.

I still have old handwritten recipes from both my mother and mother-in-law.  I like to reproduce these treasures if only to carry on tradition. In fact, just recently I made my mother in law’s pickle recipe for several family members. It was very nostalgic.

Closer to the present my go-to books include Everyday’s a Holiday produced by Hillel Academy and We Made It, a fundraising project from Hillel Lodge. I cannot help but mention From Soup to Nuts a compilation of my columns published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

Last but not least, we have the internet. In particular, I often get ideas from a column called “The Nosher.” Here’s to a yummy Yomtov everyone!

Lydia Nacawa, is of mixed Mizrachi and Ashkenazi decent and shares her experience cooking with her Egyptian grandmother:

On my paternal side, everyone was born in Egypt save for a great-grandfather who was Syrian.  Their languages were Arabic, Hebrew, and French.  Their community had been in Egypt and Syria forever.  My cooking guru was my beloved Nonna Fortunée Nacawa. She lived with my family in our home in Montreal for much of my childhood, and I was always stuck to her hip, tied in her apron-strings, and on her lap making little pastries.  My first attempts were, well, not pretty.  Over the years I can say that I have mastered all the tiny delicacies to the point that they are all absolutely perfect, same size, same shape.  My Nonna lived to her 99th year and left me with “blessings upon my hands” (in Arabic, Teslam Eidak).  I'm blessed to be the keeper of the family recipes. No cookbook needed.

My dear aunt Allegra, who is now 96, is my Nonna's eldest daughter.  I often call Aunt Allegra, as I did my Nonna, to make her smile. When I'm baking something, I give her a call and ask some questions about amounts of flour or butter, how long in the oven, what temperature?  And Allegra will laugh, knowing full well that I'm just joking with her, I know what I'm doing.  She knows my Nonna would have said, "what do you mean you don't know how much flour?" then she'd give me the answer as a proportion to the other ingredients.  I think that Nonna wasn't sure if I was joking or not.  

As for cookbooks, I really have none for Ashkenazi cooking, save an old copy of Second Helpings Please.  
For the Mizrahi side of the family, I have my memory.  However, I do also have a copy of Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food to which I refer once in a while.  Also, one fine day I read a cookbook called Aromas of Aleppo and I could honestly taste and smell each recipe as if it had been placed in front of me freshly made. Wondering why that was, I asked my mom, guru of family lore, and she informed me that one of my great grandfathers (my Nonna's dad) was Syrian and that my great-grandmother Zahia had learned to infuse her own cooking with Syrian flavours and flair.  I love that my food memories also include Syria. I added that cookbook to my collection.

Whether you cook from a book that was store bought, family-made or strictly from memory, our Rosh Hashanah meals are special, and each is unique. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa wishes you a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah. A happy and sweet New Year!