Sunday, September 16th is the first of the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah, New Year), if you are Jewish. And I think that is both religiously Jewish and culturally Jewish. I’m not either, but find the way religion and culture shape each other fascinating. Equally fascinating is the way food and culture shape each other. So, in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve done a little baking and a little thinking.
First, the recipes. I started making plum kuchen a decade or so ago. I had a boss whose birthday, falling as it did generally during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, always looked for the fall prune plums. To surprise her, I made a kuchen. Most of the kuchen recipes I’ve made are a relatively simple cake batter, with plums studding it like pavé amethysts.
I found this recipe on the internet, and it is different. The batter is divided – butter, flour and other dry ingredients are mixed together to form a crumb; milk/cream and egg are mixed to form a custard. The result is like a custard pie, with plums. We’ve had it for breakfast the past two mornings; and it was good enough that my spouse, who doesn’t really do dessert, went back for seconds on Sunday.
HEAVENLY PLUM KUCHEN
½ c. butter
1 c. sugar
1 ¼ c. flour
½ tsp. salt (I used sea salt)
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. baking powder
1 lb. fresh plums, halved and pitted
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. cream (I used ½ cup heavy cream and ½ cup 2% milk)
Cream butter and sugar. Sift flour, salt, cinnamon and baking powder into creamed mixture, using pastry blender until crumbly. Measure out 1/3 cup for topping. Press remaining evenly into bottom and about 1 inch up sides of an ungreased 10 inch pie plate or 8 inch baking pan.
Arrange plums, rounded side up, in a single layer in shell and sprinkle with saved crumb mixture. Bake for 15 minutes in 375 degree oven.
Beat the eggs until light, to break up the whites, stir in cream or milk, and pour over plums. Bake 30 minutes longer or until custard is set. (Using milk may require longer baking). Cool completely. Cut in wedges or squares to serve plain or with ice cream.
But September is just good pie season. Sometimes pies become cloyingly sweet, to me. I made this lemon pie last year – also in September – and remember it with real fondness. It’s probably time to make it again.
SHAKER LEMON PIE
2 lg. Lemons (organic lemons are best, as there aren’t additives in the rind)
4 eggs, well beaten
2 c. sugar
Pie crust for double crust pie (I used a hot-water crust, so the juices wouldn’t escape – recipe follows)
Slice lemons as thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand 2 hours minimum, preferably overnight, blending occasionally. Add beaten eggs to lemon mixture; mix well. Turn into a 9-inch pie shell, arranging lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust. Cut several slits near center. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes or until knife inserted near edge of pie comes out clean. Cool before serving. Very tart.
Hot-Water Pastry Dough
Makes enough dough for a double-crust 9 inch pie
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter
⅔ cup cold vegetable shortening
⅓ cup boiling water
In a large bowl stir together flour and salt and make a well in center. Cut butter and shortening into bits and put into well. Pour boiling water over fats in bowl, stirring fats and water with a fork until water is incorporated (some of fat will still be in lumps). With fork incorporate surrounding flour until fat is evenly distributed. On a floured surface divide dough into 4 portions. With heel of hand smear each portion once in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Form dough into 2 pieces, one slightly larger than the other, and flatten into disks. Chill disks, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 1 hour. Dough may be made 1 day ahead and chilled or 2 weeks ahead and frozen, wrapped well. Let dough soften slightly before rolling out.
I used to make a lot of pies, but got out of the habit once I stopped cooking for more than two. My son now makes pies (and bread) and told me about this one:
½ cup unsalted, softened
1 ½ cups white sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice (fresh is best)
⅛ tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust (use the hot-water crust, above, for a good result)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 degrees C). Beat eggs until frothy; add butter, sugar and flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in buttermilk, vanilla, lemon juice and nutmeg; pour into pie shell. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, or until center is firm.
What does all of this – baking sweets – have to do with the high holy days, really?
Eating sweets on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the sweetness of life. But for me, life is both sweet and tart. Lemon pie and buttermilk pie both provide a bit of tartness, and make that message resonate with me. And of course, pies are round – like the cycle of the year. All good symbols to celebrate the new year (and better than a hangover, in my view).
There’s another part of the High Holy Days that I celebrate – really, my life is not all about food.
Those days – the “ten days of repentance” which include Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between – are days to meditate on the new beginnings and past errors and to ask for forgiveness from anyone wronged during the past year. Each year, at the beginning (Rosh Hashanah), custom is that you are judged – not by a jury of your peers, but by God. However, you have the opportunity to try to soften that judgment by honestly repenting for the wrongs you have committed over the past year. Judgment is not absolute until Yom Kippur.
And while each of us might aspire to make no errors, hurt no feelings, and always behave with honor, I’m relatively confident that few of us ever reach that goal. I know I never have – maybe for a day here and there, but never for a year.
So this year, I’ll be pondering those mistakes I regret, those feelings I have hurt – however negligently – and those goals I didn’t achieve. I’m sorry.