It happens every September: the holidays.
Yet, somehow preparation seems less this year, Rosh Hashanah always providing an opportunity to try out new recipes, but I’m feeling laid back and so in contemplating deserts, the end rather than the kickoff to the meal, I revert to a low fat chocolate cake. Truthfully, it is sweets more often than the savouries that entrap me. The Canadian Jewish News presents, as always, an tempting array of apple cakes in multiple ways so I decide to combine two recipes. But one delectable desert offering will never suffice as my eaters will groan, but actually anticipate at least a second or even a third. My friend a thespian from Stratford, a superlative chef once made a plum cake, explaining the purple- blue plums are only available at this time of year. So instead of the Silver Palates’ great apple pies, I take the road less travelled by and hope that doesn’t result in lesser taste: even though the firmness of peaches this year calls out for a home in a pie. I’m excited to see if Joe’s plum tart is as delicious as I remembered it to be. I do worry that freezing may play with the flavours, but I have no choice but to shuffle down to the basement where our discarded unit lives besides the Whirlpools.
However my continuing motto is to have more than just one happy ending and so, if fruit is not to your taste, or if the result is less than anticipated, there’s that backup chocolate although I’m not sure how different kinds of sugar renders it “low fat” as decreed by its title. I seem to recall this recipe was also clipped from the newspaper when Mike Harris tightened and destroyed our economy . Something ironic like a play on Marie Antoinette’s Let them eat cake, I conjure. But I know at least that this concoction , in spite of its labelling , is tasty, tried and true.
The starters are typical for a traditional meal: gefelte fish, never a choice for my son in law. Maybe it is the naked look of poached palish yellowish fish that turns him off. And of course, the menu must contain chicken soup- which reminds me I need to make another set of matzoh balls as mine from the Lillian Kaplan recipe book were so light that I fear they will disintegrate into greyish globs in the soup. Maybe the peaks of the frothy egg whites painstakingly separated deserved more time at the mismatched prongs of the mixer.
Gefelte fish is the true challenge. Although I’ve attempted it for years now, it does not resemble my mother-in- law’s in spite of her bequeathing her recipe. I recall quizzing her about a stage in the process because I was afraid the balls would glom together as they cooked. Her response was“ You’ll see. They won’t.”
I do order the finest freshest chopped fish although she would always comment that the fish were kept really fresh in her family’s bathroom tub in Hamilton. My fish shop may wonder why I only appear at their store only once a year, but no matter, as the exorbitant cost results from hand chopping of several varieties of white fish and pickerel and a touch of salmon, bloodied heads and bones included in a separate plastic bag. But my issue revolves around the flavouring as I tend to go light on spice, afraid of overwhelming taste buds. When I first attempted it, I despised the smell. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the aroma, feeling it impregnates with the sweet smell of the fish gently poaching in the shallow pot for two or more hours. Although the smell is long gone by the time my guests come to the table, perhaps it is this imagined odour that causes my son- in- law’s lips to curl.
I am aware that the latest fashion is to purchase a gefelte fish loaf and cook it in the oven but, I am a hard- nosed purist, wanting to know exactly what is in the product. Except for my children’s insistence on Kraft Dinner, I have always cooked from scratch. I followed Adele Davis when they were young, so aware of preparing their baby food from vegetables and meats purchased only hours before to preserve their ingredients.
And in truth, many of those loaves are delicious although none meets the standards of my mother-in- law’s fish, now passed away.Alough she does not people my thoughts on a regular basis, her ghost frequents on Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is Friday nights with which I associate my mother, jumping from the table to fetch and serve, her fricasse and simple roasted chicken the stars that teased our drooling mouths. Good on Friday, but so delicious on Saturday as the leftover carcass and potatoes allowed to deepen their flavours over night.How she completed an entire meal was astounding as the oven door never closed completely and she knew not to even try to bake as customers to our hi fidelity store, situated in front of our living quarters, would inevitably appear at the crucial time of removing the cake from the oven. But the memories, naturally, differ between my mother and my mother-in- law, my mother, a gentle hovering spirit surrounding the meal with her presence.
My chicken soup I admit is divine. A concoction of carrots, celery, onion, parsley and parsnips passed through cheesecloth is based somewhat on that supreme dowager of Jewish cooking Lillian Kaplan.For some reason she suggests adding and then removing an eggshell, which often I do, rosemary and tomato paste and accent, which I don’t. I make the soup the day before so all, well at least, most of the congealed fat, can be skimmed from the surface in a hard piece, where it has risen after a night in the downstairs refrigerator. Into fine teacup shaped soup bowls of the finest porcelain that once belonged to my mother’s mother, I will spoon a matzo ball, egg noodles, sliced carrots confiscated from the soup and possibly a chicken kreplach. One of my forever guests nibbles only at the kreplach, the one store bought commodity of the meal and apparently the only part of the meal she finds appealing. I note this but do not enquire why. But I notice her plate rearranged to suggest eating.
As we move to the main course, it is a beautiful turkey stuffed with a combo of freshly made cornbread and shitaki mushrooms. My mother combined rice and button mushrooms and it too was very pleasing , but my husband’s concoction from the Frog Cookbook is the best, a lovely combination of slight crunch from the cornbread and velvety smoothness from the mushrooms. Herbs of course are purchased fresh, not dispensed from a container or jar. I believe they enhance with their pungent flavours. I do a combination of cranberries and oranges for the sauce although again I note many eaters go for the canned variety. The Frog salad has also become a staple although the croutons, first cut then baked in the oven, then sautéed in loads of butter with fresh thyme, salt and pepper are only one of the several ingredients in this assemblage of romaine, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. Often time I serve it in a bowl my aunt Marion once gifted me so her presence also hovers near.
Most Jewish people I know opt for brisket, but something about the stringiness of the meat puts me off. I’ve overheard people say that either marinating it or cooking it in Coca-Cola makes a fantastic dish although most prefer hours of slow cooking. I’m unaware of where my aversion to brisket is derived. I don’t recall my mother cooking or overcooking it. And even I have glimpsed its presence in the showcases of butcher shops, where truly it looks quite nice and entreats me to give it a chance in my menu. I ignore its pleas.
In years passed, my son’s friends from Vancouver would also come to our house. One year I made as many pancakes as I could find recipes for: zucchini, potato, yams, whatever vegetable was available. We laughed at the mounds of colours, shapes and sizes that were continually pouring out of the kitchen. In other years, chicken wings, various kugels, raw Brussels sprout salads, chicken wings, carrot and raisin combos and an attempt at stuffed knishes: whatever caught my eye in a magazine or cook book. Now with the addition of Harvard beets, the dinner is scaled back to fish, soup, two kugels, salad, turkey, stuffing and the deserts.
Perhaps the original concept of the huge supper had to do with a long journey into a new year where one should be fortified for the trials of the excursion by food that would support long walks to the market, through the shetl and on to see the mischpuka. As well, I’m sure it was Jews who lauded the notion of brain food- schmaltz greasing the wheels of cognition. As well, Marc Chagall wife’, Bella’s memoir Burning Lights is never far from my thoughts as she described the family suppers that punctuated the seasons with family arriving in Vitebsk, Russia, with pekalah of food on their backs, days of walking in order to join family in supper prayers for the new year.
So it is that I prepare for the supper, a gathering to herald a year that we all pray will be kind , peaceful and prosperous in many ways. Best of all is to have the family all together, though longing for my grandchildren in Philadelphia to be present at the ritual dinner, to be able to romp with their cousins, laugh at the misshapen matzoh balls, wrinkle their noses at gefelte fish, chomp done on turkey. Yet, I am blessed to be able to provide food, company and support to those who come, welcoming the others away to the entourage in my head : reminders of what is truly important in the times to come.